Ulster will look to follow up on their terrific away win in Montpellier in the last round when they welcome Benetton Treviso to Belfast for the first game of their December double header.
HEINEKEN CUP POOL 5: Saturday, December 7
ULSTER (1st) v BENETTON TREVISO (4th), Ravenhill, 6pm (live Sky Sports 2 red button/Sky Sports Xtra/BBC Radio Ulster MW/Newstalk/highlights TG4)
Team News: Johann Muller, Jared Payne and Ruan Pienaar have been named in the Ulster starting line-up to face Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill on Saturday.
Regular captain Muller and Payne return having recovered from injury, while Pienaar is included after being rested for the RaboDirect PRO12 match against Zebre in Italy last weekend.
The only other change to the team that started in Parma sees Sean Doyle preferred at openside flanker, with Mike McComish moving to the replacements bench.
Payne starts at full-back alongside Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy in the back-three. Darren Cave and Luke Marshall continue in midfield with Pienaar partnering Paddy Jackson at half-back.
The game will be particularly significant for young Ireland international Jackson as it is his 50th senior outing for Ulster.
The front row is unchanged from the Zebre game with Tom Court starting at loosehead prop, Rob Herring continuing at hooker and John Afoa selected at tighthead.
South African Muller returns in the second row alongside Dan Tuohy, with Doyle, Roger Wilson and Robbie Diack making up the back row.
The Ulstermen are top of Pool 5 having beaten Leicester Tigers and Montpellier. Saturday’s round 3 game is live on Sky Sports 2 interactive (red button) and on BBC Radio Ulster (Medium wave).
Meanwhile, the Benetton Treviso players come into this game knowing that their long-serving head coach Franco Smith will soon depart.
The South African, who has been in charge of the Italian club since 2007, was due to step down at the end of the season.
But Treviso have decided to give current assistant coach Marius Goosen a shot at the main role, and Smith is leaving after these Ulster matches ‘by mutual consent’.
Treviso’s failure to add to their two RaboDirect PRO12 wins so far this season has been frustrating for their fans and the players and coaches concerned.
After drawing at home to Cardiff last weekend, club president Amerino Zatta said: “It’s quite a difficult situation, with some embarrassment and discomfort. If you look at the table we can see that we missed a good chance (against Cardiff). Unfortunately the team isn’t quite producing what we would like.
“The problem has been going on for a while, it’s something we need to face up to. On the pitch we are making too many mistakes. The teams we are playing aren’t much better than us but we seem to lack that hunger that singled us out in previous years.”
For his penultimate match at the helm, Smith has made five changes in personnel with a number of Italy internationals returning to the starting line-up.
Luke McLean steps in for Brendan Williams at full-back with Christian Loamanu – their only try scorer in this European campaign – making way for Alberto Sgarbi at inside centre. Tobie Botes is also benched, with Edoardo Gori wearing the number 9 jersey.
In the forwards, Antonio Pavanello takes over from Marco Fuser in the second row and will captain the side, while Robert Barbieri gets the nod at number 8.
ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave. Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rob Herring, John Afoa, Johann Muller (capt), Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Sean Doyle, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Niall Annett, Callum Black, Declan Fitzpatrick, Neil McComb, Mike McComish, Paul Marshall, Michael Allen, David McIlwaine.
BENETTON TREVISO: Luke McLean; Ludovico Nitoglia, Michele Campagnaro, Alberto Sgarbi, Angelo Esposito; Mat Berquist, Edoardo Gori; Alberto de Marchi, Leonardo Ghiraldini, Lorenzo Cittadini, Antonio Pavanello (capt), Corniel van Zyl, Alessandro Zanni, Dean Budd, Robert Barbieri.
Replacements: Franco Sbaraglini, Michele Rizzo, Ignacio Fernandez Rouyet, Paul Derbyshire, Marco Filippucci, Christian Loamanu, Tobie Botes, James Ambrosini.
Referee: Luke Pearce (England)
Assistant Referees: Steve Lee, Paul Dix (both England)
Television Match Official: Geoff Warren (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/100; Draw: 50/1; Benetton Treviso to win: 18/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) – “Montpellier was a huge win for us – they are an unbelievable side and it is not an easy place to go. It was a great result, but we did the same with a good performance at Northampton last year and then let it slip against them at home so we need to be really switched on and ready for anything.
“These are two massive weekends for us. We’ve put ourselves in a good position in the group and to let it slide now would be disappointing.
“Last season we did the hard work at Franklin’s Gardens before losing here at Ravenhill so there’s still a lot to play for and we know that.
“We won’t get ahead of ourselves and we definitely won’t underestimate Treviso. They’ve improved so much over the last couple of years. They play a positive brand of rugby and are always willing to have a go. We’ll have to be at our best.
“There’s a lot to improve on but the guys are desperate to get back up there and challenge for the trophy. We’ve come a long way.
“Ulster went through a tough time and being in a couple of quarter-finals and a final now was special, but, if we want to improve as a team, we need to be there year in and year out, competing with the best sides.
“It’s one of the top competitions in the world. For our region here in Northern Ireland, it means a lot to the people and to all our supporters.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a brilliant competition. To play against the top teams around Europe and to travel to different cities and different places and experience different cultures makes it really special. I’ve loved every minute of it and hopefully it will continue.”
Current Form – Ulster – (RaboDirect PRO12): Lost 15-8 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 13-12 at home to Glasgow Warriors; Won 18-7 away to Connacht; Won 32-13 at home to Benetton Treviso; Won 18-12 away to the Ospreys; (Heineken Cup): Won 22-16 at home to Leicester Tigers; Won 25-8 away to Montpellier; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 39-21 at home to Cardiff Blues; Lost 17-9 away to the Scarlets; Won 41-17 at home to Edinburgh; Won 19-11 away to Zebre
Benetton Treviso – (RaboDirect PRO12): Lost 24-19 at home to the Ospreys; Lost 26-10 away to the Scarlets; Won 29-19 at home to Benetteon Treviso; Lost 32-13 away to Ulster; Won 23-3 at home to Connacht; (Heineken Cup): Lost 27-10 at home to Montpellier; Lost 34-3 away to Leicester Tigers; (RaboDirect PRO12): Lost 20-13 away to Edinburgh; Lost 17-13 away to Cardiff Blues; Lost 21-20 at home to Leinster; Drew 26-26 at home to Cardiff Blues
Top Scorers – 2013/14 Heineken Cup: Ulster – Points: Paddy Jackson 22; Tries: Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble 1 each; Benetton Treviso – Points: Tobie Botes 8; Tries: Christian Loamanu 1
Previous European Meetings: 4
Saturday, January 21, 2006 – Pool 4 – Benetton Treviso 26 Ulster 43, Stadio di Monigo
Friday, October 21, 2005 – Pool 4 – Ulster 27 Benetton Treviso 0, Ravenhill
Friday, January 11, 2004 – Pool 2 – Ulster 59 Benetton Treviso 3, Ravenhill
Saturday, September 29, 2001 – Pool 2 – Benetton Treviso 28 Ulster 33, Stadio di Monigo
Heineken Cup Records:
2012/13: Reached the quarter-finals
2010/11: Reached the quarter-finals
2009/10: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2004/05: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2003/04: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2002/03: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool B
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool C
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool B
Benetton Treviso –
2012/13: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2011/12: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2009/10: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2004/05: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2003/04: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
1998/99: Failed to qualify from Pool D
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool E
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool A
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool A