The Ulster team has been named for Saturday’s crucial European Champions Cup round 6 game against Oyonnax at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 1pm).
Darren Cave has recovered from a shoulder injury and will feature for the first time since the start of December, with Stuart McCloskey getting a well-earned rest after playing in all 16 of Ulster’s matches this season. Number 8 Nick Williams is also back in the fray.
New Ireland captain Rory Best has minor back tightness and has not been able to train fully this week, so he will start the game on the bench. That means that Rob Herring, who has been named in Ireland’s squad for rounds 1 and 2 of the RBS 6 Nations, will deputise as both hooker and captain.
Ruan Pienaar has been ruled out by illness while Wiehahn Herbst has a foot injury, so Paul Marshall and Ricky Lutton come into the side at scrum half and tighthead prop respectively.
Herring and Lutton are joined in the front row by Kyle McCall, with Alan O’Connor and Franco van der Merwe continuing in the engine room. Robbie Diack and Sean Reidy will again pack down either side of Williams in the back row.
Marshall is joined at half-back by Paddy Jackson, with Cave and Luke Marshall combining in midfield. The back-three consists of Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Jared Payne, who will make his first home appearance of the season for Ulster.
Best is joined on the bench by fellow forwards Callum Black, Bronson Ross, Clive Ross and Roger Wilson. Dave Shanahan, Ian Humphreys and Rory Scholes are the back-line replacements.
Commenting on his selection, Ulster’s director of rugby Les Kiss said: “It’s great to have Darren and Nick back in the team. We welcomed Jared back last week and that was pleasing for us too.
“With Rory on the bench, it’s another opportunity for Rob to show what a great player and what a great leader he is. Ruan has been struggling with illness all week so he is unavailable, but we know that Paul will come in and do a fantastic job for us.”
Following their 32-14 bonus win over Toulouse last weekend, Kiss is expecting a tough challenge from ever-improving Oyonnax.
“They are a good team and they will provide a big challenge for us. We need to stay focused on our game, make our tackles, start the match with the right attitude and play with discipline because they can hurt you if you give the ball away easily. They showed that last week against Toulouse and against us a fortnight ago.
“We know our best chance of going through (to the quarter-finals) will be by earning a bonus point victory, so to give ourselves the best chance we need to play with accuracy and work hard for each other for 80 minutes.
“We’re optimistic that we can get the job done and with the unpredictability of this competition, there’s a real chance for us to go through. Hopefully there will be a good crowd at Kingspan and we can give them something to cheer about.”
Ulster v Oyonnax tickets are still available to buy through www.ulsterrugby.com/buytickets.
ULSTER (v Oyonnax): Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Kyle McCall, Rob Herring (capt), Ricky Lutton, Alan O’Connor, Franco van der Merwe, Robbie Diack, Sean Reidy, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Rory Best, Callum Black, Bronson Ross, Clive Ross, Roger Wilson, Dave Shanahan, Ian Humphreys, Rory Scholes.