The return of both Robert Baloucoune and Marcell Coetzee strengthens the Ulster team for Saturday’s Guinness PRO14 derby showdown with Leinster at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm).
Having ended his long injury-enforced absence off the bench last Friday against the Ospreys, Baloucoune is handed his first start since February 2020. He joins Jacob Stockdale and full-back Michael Lowry in the back-three.
The rest of the back-line is unchanged from last week’s 21-7 victory, with James Hume and Stuart McCloskey retained in the centre, and Ian Madigan and John Cooney again selected as the half-back duo.
Like McCloskey, Tom O’Toole has been released from Ireland camp to get game-time for his province. He comes into the front row along with Eric O’Sullivan, sandwiching in-form hooker John Andrew.
Alan O’Connor and Kieran Treadwell continue together in the engine room, while Coetzee’s inclusion at number 8 sees Nick Timoney revert to the blindside berth. Jordi Murphy captains the Ulstermen from openside.
Adam McBurney, Andrew Warwick, Martin Moore, Cormac Izuchukwu and Sean Reidy will offer forward cover on the bench, with Alby Mathewson, Stewart Moore and Rob Lyttle named as the reserve backs.
Ulster trail Leinster by six points at the top of Conference A heading into the final three rounds, so back rower Timoney acknowledged: “For us it is almost like a knock-out game, it’s like a semi-final that isn’t taking place this year – if we lose we are probably not making the final.
“In Leinster’s minds they probably need to know they have to win as well, so I think both teams will be going into it as fully loaded as they can during the international period. It’s going to be a huge game.
“Leinster’s form is pretty impressive. The consistency they’ve shown over that period of time, the last three seasons or even more, even when they have lost players to international duty.
“It’s impressive how they can have two completely different 23s and manage to play in the same way and to a similar standard. It’s obvious they are very impressive and it’s going to be a huge task for us.
“I think we are going to have to step up from how we’ve played in the last couple of weeks. We are capable of doing it but we know it is a huge challenge because of the way they play and how well they play.”
ULSTER (v Leinster): Michael Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Ian Madigan, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, John Andrew, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy (capt), Marcell Coetzee.
Replacements: Adam McBurney, Andrew Warwick, Martin Moore, Cormac Izuchukwu, Sean Reidy, Alby Mathewson, Stewart Moore, Rob Lyttle.