Club captain Iain Henderson has given Ulster a massive boost with his return to fitness ahead of Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 final against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm).
Henderson is one of four personnel changes, slotting into the second row for his first provincial appearance since last January. Michael Lowry, Alby Mathewson and Sean Reidy also come into the starting XV.
Of the back-line that started last weekend’s thrilling 22-19 semi-final win in Edinburgh, Lowry anchors the back-three with Rob Lyttle, the Guinness player-of-the-match in Scotland, and Jacob Stockdale filling the wing positions.
Stuart McCloskey, who, along with John Cooney, was named in the Guinness PRO14 Dream Team earlier this week, continues his centre partnership. There is a first Ulster start for Mathewson at half-back alongside Billy Burns.
Henderson, who underwent hip surgery in July, combines with Alan O’Connor at lock, featuring behind an unchanged front row of Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring and Tom O’Toole. Reidy, a lively replacement the last day, joins Matthew Rea and Marcell Coetzee in the loose forwards.
Dan McFarland has opted for a six-two split on the bench where John Andrew, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Sam Carter, Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney will offer the forward back-up, and the back-line cover is provided by Cooney and Ian Madigan, the late goal-kicking hero from the semi-final.
Head coach McFarland explained: “It’s terrific to have Iain back. He’s the captain of the club and we know what Iain can do for us in those big games. He has shown a propensity to play well in big games and also in big games that come off the back of him not being involved for a number of weeks beforehand. It’s a great boost for the squad.”
Commenting on some of the selection calls, he noted: “That was definitely the most difficult selection decision that I’ve ever been involved in and I’ve been involved in a lot. John and Alby are two excellent number 9s, but Alby is playing the better rugby at the moment.
“I feel really lucky that we, as a club, have two scrum halves of that quality and the fact we’re able to look to John coming off the bench – as Alby did last week – and influence the game and change the way the game is played, potentially in the second half.
“It’s pretty clear what Michael (Lowry) offers. He has electric feet and the way we want to play the game counter attacking-wise, he adds to that. He’s a really talented young player and he can play at number 10 as well. There’s great hopes for Michael going forward and we’re really lucky having him in the team this weekend.”
ULSTER (v Leinster): Michael Lowry; Rob Lyttle, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, Alby Mathewson; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (capt), Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy, Marcell Coetzee.
Replacements: John Andrew, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Sam Carter, Jordi Murphy, John Cooney, Ian Madigan, Nick Timoney.