Key men Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale have returned to the Ulster team for Friday’s sold-out GUINNESS PRO14 derby encounter with Munster at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm).
The Ireland stars are two of three changes to the side that recorded a slick 35-3 bonus point victory over Connacht last week. Stockdale is the only alteration to the back-line, coming in on the left wing alongside full-back Will Addison and Robert Baloucoune.
The familiar duo of Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey make up the hosts’ midfield pairing, while head coach Dan McFarland also retains Billy Burns and John Cooney at half-back for the clash with the Conference B leaders.
The all-Ireland international front row of Jack McGrath, Rob Herring and Martin Moore is unchanged from last weekend, while Henderson resumes in the captaincy role and starts in the second row alongside Alan O’Connor.
Nick Timoney, the scorer of Ulster’s fifth and final try against Connacht, comes in to fill the number 8 berth, teaming up in the loose forwards with blindside flanker Matthew Rea and openside Sean Reidy, the man-of-the-match in Ulster’s final game of 2019.
John Andrew, Kyle McCall and Tom O’Toole will cover the front row on the bench, while David O’Connor and Greg Jones are named as the additional forward replacements. David Shanahan, former Munster out-half Bill Johnston and Craig Gilroy will provide the back-line options.
With the Ulstermen determined to extend their 18-match unbeaten home run, centre Marshall said: “We are bringing back the fortress feeling to the Kingspan – the pressure now is just keeping that up and keeping the record intact. I think it is down to the culture Dan tried to instill since he has been here.
“Playing for the badge, playing for the province. He has really bought into that and pushed us to buy into it. I think Dan has done really well, he’s got us representing the badge and playing for the province. The support we have, it has always been there over the last 10 years, but that helps as well.
“Munster have changed it up this year with Stephen Larkham coming in. Without being disrespectful to them, they are playing a wee bit more rugby now rather than their traditional 10-man style they used to play, though they can revert to that because they have a dominant pack.
“It depends what kind of team they pick but I’m sure they’ll come up fully loaded. They have so much talent out wide and I think they realise they need to use it and not just rely on their pack. It makes them pretty tough to play against.”
ULSTER (v Munster): Will Addison; Robert Baloucoune, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Jack McGrath, Rob Herring, Martin Moore, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (capt), Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: John Andrew, Kyle McCall, Tom O’Toole, David O’Connor, Greg Jones, David Shanahan, Bill Johnston, Craig Gilroy.