As the unbeaten GUINNESS PRO12 leaders pitch up in Belfast, Ulster can do themselves and the rest of the chasing pack a big favour by toppling the Ospreys at Kingspan Stadium tonight.
GUINNESS PRO12: Friday, November 21
ULSTER (3rd) v OSPREYS (1st), Kingspan Stadium, 7.35pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy and Stuart Olding have all been released by Ireland and will start for Ulster against the Ospreys at Kingspan Stadium.
All three played in Ireland’s six-try win over Georgia at the Aviva Stadium last weekend and return to Ulster to take on an Ospreys side unbeaten in the GUINNESS PRO12 and lying top of the table.
Olding starts at full-back with Gilroy named on the left wing in the only change to the team that beat the Newport Gwent Dragons 23-6 at the start of the month. Louis Ludik, who starts on the right wing, completes the back-three.
Fresh from making his home debut for Ireland, Cave partners Stuart McCloskey in the centre with Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson continuing their half-back partnership.
Up front, Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst start either side of Rob Herring in the front row, while Lewis Stevenson and Franco van der Merwe are paired together in the second row.
Stand-in captain Roger Wilson has recovered from a shoulder injury to start at number 8, with Sean Reidy selected at openside flanker and Clive Ross named at blindside.
Nick Williams has recovered from the knee injury that kept him out of the win over the Dragons and is in line to make his 50th appearance for Ulster if he is introduced off the bench.
Alan O’Connor is also selected among the replacements as are fellow forwards John Andrew, Andrew Warwick and Declan Fitzpatrick. Backs Michael Heaney, Ian Humphreys and Peter Nelson complete the matchday squad.
Meanwhile, the Ospreys have a long list of absentees for the latest round of league action due to international commitments and injuries.
Ten players are marked absent due to the November internationals, including the likes of Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb as well as Canadian duo Tyler Ardron and Jeff Hassler.
Steve Tandy’s men have twelve players unavailable due to injury, the latest setbacks seeing Morgan Allen (ankle) and Jonathan Spratt (knee) both undergo surgery.
The Ospreys beat Connacht 26-11 last time out in the PRO12. There are a number of enforced changes to that team with Ashley Beck and Aisea Natoga starting in the backs and prop Dmitri Arhip and back rowers James King and Dan Baker introduced up front.
Rory Thornton, a 19-year-old lock, and Fijian back rower Ifereimi Boladau will make their PRO12 debuts if they are sprung from the bench.
ULSTER: Stuart Olding; Louis Ludik, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Callum Black, Rob Herring, Wiehahn Herbst, Lewis Stevenson, Franco van der Merwe, Clive Ross, Sean Reidy, Roger Wilson (capt).
Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Declan Fitzpatrick, Alan O’Connor, Nick Williams, Michael Heaney, Ian Humphreys, Peter Nelson.
OSPREYS: Dan Evans; Tom Grabham, Andrew Bishop, Ashley Beck, Aisea Natoga; Sam Davies, Martin Roberts; Duncan Jones, Sam Parry, Dmitri Arhip, Lloyd Peers (capt), Rynier Bernardo, James King, Sam Lewis, Dan Baker.
Replacements: Matthew Dwyer, Marc Thomas, Cai Griffiths, Rory Thornton, Ifereimi Boladau, Ieuan Jones, Tom Habberfield, Hanno Dirksen.
Referee: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Nigel Correll, Brian MacNeice (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/5; Draw: 20/1; Ospreys to win: 16/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Franco van der Merwe (Ulster) – “The break (including a trip to New York) was good and just to get away from it all and change the routine was also good
“I’m used to playing everything, being from South Africa. In Super Rugby, I played every single game, especially the last few years, but hats off to the management here – they have been really looking after me. Now this is a big 10 weeks and there are some very important games coming up.
“I’ve never played the Ospreys before but they are top of the log and haven’t lost a game so that speaks for itself, but it’s home advantage and the Kingspan gets fired up for Friday night games.”
Steve Tandy (Ospreys) – “We’ve got back-to-back away games at two of the toughest places to go in European rugby (Ulster and Leinster), and you’ve got to be excited by that, whoever you are.
“It’s a crucial period of the season, one that we didn’t do well in last season, and we all know how important a good result or two during the international period can be come the end of the year.
“We know that going there missing more than 20 players will make a difficult task even harder, but we’ve got to look beyond that. These boys have to take responsibility for what we are trying to achieve, and have to realise that this is a fantastic opportunity for them to really make a positive impression in the shirt.”
Top Scorers – 2014/15 GUINNESS PRO12: Ulster – Points: Ian Humphreys 54; Tries: Andrew Trimble 4; Ospreys – Points: Dan Biggar 70; Tries: Rhys Webb 5
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Sunday, September 25, 2011 – Ospreys 32 Ulster 14, Liberty Stadium
Friday, February 24, 2012 – Ulster 15 Ospreys 14, Ravenhill
Saturday, September 8, 2012 – Ospreys 13 Ulster 16, Liberty Stadium
Friday, February 8, 2013 – Ulster 12 Ospreys 16, Ravenhill
Friday, October 4, 2013 – Ospreys 12 Ulster 18, Liberty Stadium
Friday, February 7, 2014 – Ulster 10 Ospreys 7, Ravenhill
– Ulster’s only defeat in the GUINNESS PRO12 this season came against Zebre in Parma in round 4
– This is Ulster’s fourth successive home game in the league, a venue where they have been defeated only once in the PRO12 since September 2013
– Ulster’s single defeat in their last seven fixtures against Welsh regions was by Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park in March
– The Ospreys have made the perfect start to the GUINNESS PRO12 season with seven straight victories, matching their best ever start in the league set a decade ago
– The Ospreys have won their last four games against Irish provinces since Munster were victorious at the Liberty Stadium in February
– Ulster have won four of their last five encounters with the Ospreys, although in all five instances the losing side achieved a bonus point with the highest match tally being only 30 points
– The Ospreys have won in Belfast just once in their last four visits: 16-12 on February 8, 2013