New Zealand prop John Afoa will captain Ulster in the injury-enforced absence of Johann Muller as the province look to close the gap on their play-off rivals by beating the Newport Gwent Dragons at home.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, February 10
ULSTER (6th) v NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS (10th), Ravenhill, 7.05pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland/RTÉ Two)
Team News: The Ulster team to face the Newport Gwent Dragons in the RaboDirect PRO12 at Ravenhill on Friday has been named.
Paddy Wallace and Dan Tuohy have been released from the Ireland camp to start for Ulster against the Welsh region, while Simon Danielli will be on the replacements bench following his release from Scotland duty.
Regular captain Johann Muller suffered a calf injury in the team run on Wednesday and has been withdrawn as a precaution.
All Black prop John Afoa will take over as skipper for the night and he is joined in the front row by Andi Kyriacou and Callum Black, who makes his second start for the Ulstermen.
Muller’s absence means Lewis Stevenson will partner Tuohy in the second row, while Mike McComish, Willie Faloon and Robbie Diack form an athletic back row trio.
The half-back pairing of Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys remains in place, as does the centre partnership of Wallace and Ian Whitten.
Adam D’Arcy will start at full-back, with the versatile Stefan Terblanche moving to left wing and Craig Gilroy switching to the right side.
Paddy McAllister has returned from injury to be included among the replacements, providing front row cover along with Nigel Brady and Adam Macklin.
The experienced Tim Barker and Academy player Ali Birch are the other forward replacements. Paul Marshall, Nevin Spence and Danielli complete the matchday squad.
Meanwhile, the Newport Gwent Dragons have been boosted by some returning players, including out-half Jason Tovey, ahead of their trip to Belfast.
Centre Ashley Smith is back as captain of a side which sees a number of changes since the last Dragons match against the Ospreys in Bridgend a fortnight ago.
Adam Jones and Rob Sidoli both return in the second row having been rested after a busy December and January period.
Back rower Gavin Thomas is also fit again having recovered from injury, while former Ulster back Jamie Smith will line out on the right wing for the Welshmen.
ULSTER: Adam D’Arcy; Craig Gilroy, Ian Whitten, Paddy Wallace, Stefan Terblanche; Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Andi Kyriacou, John Afoa (capt), Lewis Stevenson, Dan Tuohy, Mike McComish, Willie Faloon, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Paddy McAllister, Adam Macklin, Tim Barker, Ali Birch, Paul Marshall, Nevin Spence, Simon Danielli.
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS: Martyn Thomas; Jamie Smith, Adam Hughes, Ashley Smith (capt), Aled Brew; Jason Tovey, Wayne Evans; Nathan Williams, Steve Jones, Nathan Buck, Adam Jones, Rob Sidoli, Jevon Groves, Darren Waters, Gavin Thomas
Replacements: Rhys Buckley, Phil Price, Dan Way, Hugo Ellis, Tom Brown, Joe Bedford, Andy Tuilagi, Lewis Robling.
Referee: Carlo Damasco (Italy)
Assistant Referees: Paul Haycock, David Keane (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Peter Ferguson (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/6; Draw: 25/1; Newport Gwent Dragons to win: 4/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Brian McLaughlin (Ulster) – “We’re delighted to have the guys away with Ireland, it’s important that individual players get recognition for their performances with Ulster.
“With those guys away, it gives others a chance to come in and push themselves. It’s important for the squad that we give as many opportunities as possible to players as we have to be in a position where we have depth in each area.
“Johann got a tight calf during the team run yesterday (Wednesday) and after a scan we had a slight fear that it would develop, so we decided not to risk him.
“But it gives Lewis Stevenson the chance to step in and get some more game-time, and Tim (Barker) will get some action from the bench.
“It’s good to be back at Ravenhill in front of our home crowd but form counts for very little when you’re playing the Dragons. They are always difficult to beat and they will be as determined as ever to stop the rot.”
Darren Edwards (Newport Gwent Dragons) – “Jason (Tovey) is a professional player, his attitude has been spot-on in training and we need to pick our best team.
“We need to get the result in Ulster and this is an important block of games for us. I was hoping that we would be in a stronger position than we are in the PRO12 but that’s the way it goes and we have to respond.
“We do have a number of home games after doing some hard yards earlier on this season and it would be nice to get some reward for all of that work.
“The spine of the Ulster team is very good. They have key players like (Ruan) Pienaar, who is influential at the best of times but even more so when they are missing others.
“He has been real value for money and they have added serious quality with (John) Afoa, they are showing real intent.
“But games against Ulster have been very tight, both at Ravenhill and Rodney Parade, and we are looking forward to Friday.”
Top Scorers – 2011/12 RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster – Points: Ian Humphreys 100; Tries: Darren Cave 4; Newport Gwent Dragons – Points: Jason Tovey 107; Tries: Tom Riley 3
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Sunday, February 22, 2009 – Newport Gwent Dragons 26 Ulster 16, Rodney Parade
Sunday, September 6, 2009 – Newport Gwent Dragons 23 Ulster 6, Rodney Parade
Friday, February 19, 2010 – Ulster 22 Newport Gwent Dragons 22, Ravenhill
Thursday, March 18, 2010 – Ulster 25 Newport Gwent Dragons 23, Ravenhill
Friday, May 6, 2011 – Newport Gwent Dragons 13 Ulster 20, Rodney Parade
Friday, September 30, 2011 – Newport Gwent Dragons 22 Ulster 9, Rodney Parade
– Ulster have won three of their last four matches in the RaboDirect PRO12. Their only defeat at Ravenhill in their last 16 games in all competitions since December 2010 was a 23-12 loss to Benetton Treviso on October 7
– The Ulstermen have not lost at home to a Welsh region since the Dragons themselves were the visitors in April 2010
– The Newport Gwent Dragons’ last four fixtures in all competitions have all been won by the home side on the day
– The Dragons are in the midst of their worst ever away run in the competition, with ten straight losses on the road, and without a win in their last 11 trips since their 18-3 victory over Aironi in February 2011
– The men of Gwent won 22-9 when the two sides met at Rodney Parade in round five but have not achieved a season’s double over the Ulstermen since the 2008/09 season
– The Dragons’ only win in Ireland since 2004 was a 16-14 success over Ulster at Ravenhill in September 2008