Seven points separate the top two teams in the RaboDirect PRO12 as Ulster and their chief chasers Glasgow Warriors go head-to-head at Scotstoun Stadium tonight.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, February 22
GLASGOW WARRIORS (2nd) v ULSTER (1st), Scotstoun Stadium, 7.35pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland/RTÉ Two/BBC ALBA)
Team News: Mark Anscombe has made 11 personnel changes to the Ulster team for Friday’s RaboDirect PRO12 encounter with Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun Stadium.
Neil Walsh and Conor Joyce will start in an Ulster senior jersey for the first time after being named on the left wing and in the back row respectively.
Walsh made his debut as a late replacement in last weekend’s home win over Zebre, while Joyce’s previous appearance was in the derby defeat to Leinster in December 2011.
The side will be captained by tighthead prop John Afoa, who is joined in an all-new front row by Nigel Brady and Callum Black.
Dan Tuohy and Neil McComb come in to the second row in place of regular skipper Johann Muller and Lewis Stevenson.
Robbie Diack, the only forward retained from the Zebre fixture, starts again at number 8 and will combine in the back row with Joyce and Ali Birch.
With Paddy Jackson making his debut for Ireland this weekend, Anscombe has called upon Paddy Wallace to direct affairs from out-half.
The back-line reshuffle also results in Andrew Trimble moving to outside centre where he is partnered in midfield by Ireland Under-20 international Stuart Olding, who produced an impressive performance off the bench last Friday.
Michael Allen will line up on the right wing for his 12th cap, with Walsh on the opposite flank. Ruan Pienaar (scrum half) and Ricky Andrew (full-back) complete the backline.
Andrew Warwick again has an opportunity to earn his first cap after being named among the replacements for the second time this season.
Rob Herring, Ricky Lutton, Alan O’Connor and Mike McComish are the other reserve forwards. Paul Marshall, Darren Cave and Chris Cochrane are the back-line options and should provide some spark if called upon.
Meanwhile, Peter Horne has been handed the out-half jersey for his 50th appearance for Glasgow Warriors as head coach Gregor Townsend makes six changes to the starting line-up.
Fresh from their eight-try, 60-3 demolition of the Newport Gwent Dragons, the Warriors are seeking their sixth league win in-a-row when they host PRO12 table toppers Ulster.
Horne, who has recovered from the fracture that kept him out of the Scotland RBS 6 Nations squad, has been given the task of directing matters from half-back.
Ryan Grant, Jon Welsh and Moray Low are all on Scotland duty, while fellow front rowers Gordon Reid has not been passed fit after suffering concussion in the Dragons game.
George Hunter is still recovering from a foot injury suffered in December, while Mike Cusack is recovering from a shoulder injury.
It means a second start of the season for Tongan prop Ofa Fainga’anuku and a return to starting duties for Ed Kalman. The front row is bolstered by the inclusion of Pat MacArthur.
Garry Mountford from Stirling County and Luke Pettie from Gala have joined up with the Warriors as their reserve props for the night, while the third front row replacement is also filled by a club player – Heriot’s hooker Fraser Brown.
Tim Swinson and Tom Ryder resume their familiar second row partnership, with a back row formed by Josh Strauss, John Barclay and captain Ryan Wilson.
Niko Matawalu, recipient of three consecutive man-of-the-match awards in the Warriors’ last three games, starts at scrum half in place of Henry Pyrgos who is on Scotland duty.
Mark Bennett, who scored his first Warriors try in the mauling of the Dragons, retains his place alongside Alex Dunbar in midfield with Peter Murchie also continuing at full-back.
GLASGOW WARRIORS: Peter Murchie; Tommy Seymour, Mark Bennett, Alex Dunbar, DTH van der Merwe; Peter Horne, Niko Matawalu; Ofa Fainga’anuku, Pat MacArthur, Ed Kalman, Tim Swinson, Tom Ryder, Josh Strauss, John Barclay, Ryan Wilson (capt).
Replacements: Fraser Brown, Luke Pettie, Garry Mountford, Nick Campbell, James Eddie, Sean Kennedy, Scott Wight, Graeme Morrison.
ULSTER: Ricky Andrew, Michael Allen, Andrew Trimble, Stuart Olding, Neil Walsh; Paddy Wallace, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Nigel Brady, John Afoa (capt), Neil McComb, Dan Tuohy, Conor Joyce, Ali Birch, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Ricky Lutton, Andrew Warwick, Alan O’Connor, Mike McComish, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Chris Cochrane.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: David Changleng, Adrian Graves (both Scotland)
Television Match Official: Iain Ramage (Scotland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Glasgow Warriors to win: 4/9; Draw: 18/1; Ulster to win: 9/5
Pre-Match Quotes: Ricky Andrew (Ulster) – “I’ve been lucky in a lot of respects. We’ve had injuries and I have been able to benefit so I’ve tried to enjoy it and I have to treat every game as if it could be my last,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“It was great to score the try (against Zebre last week) and it didn’t really sink in until after the game when I spoke to friends and family.
“It was good to score alongside a lot of the lads I’ve come up through the Academy with and it meant I could share a special moment with them. It has also been great to get the run of games I’ve got.
“I’ve just been grateful for the opportunities that have come my way this season. Young guys need a few games to settle into things.
“It is difficult to go straight into a team like Ulster and impress in your first game, in fact it is nigh on impossible. But I don’t go into games worrying about what could go wrong.
“Mistakes will be made by younger players so it helps that there are great players around you. I think, though, that we’ve shown that the younger guys can come in and do a decent job.”
Gregor Townsend (Glasgow Warriors) – “We played some very good rugby last week (when beating the Dragons 60-3) and scored some excellent tries, but I believe there is more to come from this group of players.
“We know we have to perform at those high levels week in, week out when we are competing against sides as good as Ulster.
“We have faced them three times already this season and we’re yet to win one, so we’re determined to put that right.
“Peter (Horne) brings another dimension to our play and will lead what is an exciting backs division. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do on Friday night.
“We are now entering the business end of the season, where each match has ramifications on the play-off positions. We will be playing six out of the top seven sides in the next two months and we’ll have to be at our best to succeed.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Glasgow Warriors – Points: Duncan Weir 44; Tries: DTH van der Merwe 8; Ulster – Points: Ruan Pienaar 78; Tries: Nick Williams 6
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, April 16, 2010 – Glasgow Warriors 25 Ulster 18, Firhill Stadium
Friday, October 1, 2010 – Ulster 19 Glasgow Warriors 17, Ravenhill
Friday, March 25, 2011 – Glasgow Warriors 19 Ulster 22, Firhill Stadium
Friday, September 2, 2011 – Ulster 28 Glasgow Warriors 14, Ravenhill
Friday, November 25, 2011 – Glasgow Warriors 17 Ulster 9, Firhill Stadium
Friday, August 31, 2012 – Ulster 18 Glasgow Warriors 10, Ravenhill
– Glasgow Warriors have won their last five RaboDirect PRO12 encounters since their 31-3 defeat at Munster on December 1
– The Warriors’ only league loss at Scotstoun Stadium since early September was 6-0 to Leinster on November 23
– Glasgow have won just one of their last seven fixtures with Irish provinces: 27-17 at home to Connacht on September 21
– Ulster remain at the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 table despite having a won 2, lost 2 record from their last four contests
– The Ulstermen have lost only one away game in any competition this season: 24-10 at Munster in the PRO12 on December 29, while they have won their last seven games against Scottish opponents in all tournaments
– The Warriors’ lone victory over Ulster in their last seven meetings was 17-9 at Firhill Stadium in November 2011