Table toppers Ulster meet the Scarlets for the second time in the space of a month, bidding to follow up on their 19-12 victory over the Welsh region in Llanelli.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, January 4
ULSTER (1st) v SCARLETS (2nd), Ravenhill, 7.05pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe has made eight changes to the team for Friday’s RaboDirect PRO12 encounter with the Scarlets at Ravenhill.
In the province’s back-line, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar all return to the starting line-up after missing last weekend’s derby clash with Munster.
Rob Herring and Adam Macklin are retained in the front row, while Tom Court starts at loosehead prop. Dan Tuohy makes his first start after recovering from a torn calf muscle and joins Lewis Stevenson in the second-row.
Chris Henry will captain the table-topping Ulstermen from openside flanker, with Robbie Diack selected on the blindside and Nick Williams lining out at number 8.
Callum Black drops to the bench along with fellow forwards Neil McComb and Roger Wilson. Paddy Wallace and John Afoa should see action as replacement with youngsters Niall Annett, Michael Heaney and Ricky Andrew also kept in reserve.
Meanwhile, after a bruising few weeks over the festive period, the Scarlets are without 12 players from their squad for the trip to Belfast – 11 through injury and one due to suspension (centre Gareth Owen).
Owen, Rhys Priestland (Achilles), Liam Williams (concussion) and Jordan Williams (shoulder) are the most notable absentees in the backs, with Wales out-half Priestland now out of plaster and into an air-cast boot.
In the forwards the Llanelli-based outfit are missing seven players – back rower Aaron Shingler (groin), second row George Earle (knee), hooker Matthew Rees (neck), hooker Ken Owens (ribs), second row Joe Snyman (groin), prop Samson Lee (shoulder) and number 8 Kieran Murphy (back).
Welsh international Rob McCusker returns to the back row though. A disciplinary hearing this week upheld that the red card issued to him in the December 26 derby match against the Ospreys was sufficient punishment.
ULSTER: Adam D’Arcy; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rob Herring, Adam Macklin, Lewis Stevenson, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry (capt), Nick Williams.
Replacements: Niall Annett, Callum Black, John Afoa, Neil McComb, Roger Wilson, Michael Heaney, Paddy Wallace, Ricky Andrew.
SCARLETS: Dan Newton; George North, Gareth Maule, Jonathan Davies (capt), Kristian Phillips; Aled Thomas, Tavis Knoyle; Phil John, Emyr Phillips, Jacobie Adriaanse, Sione Timani, Richard Kelly, Josh Turnbull, Johnathan Edwards, Rob McCusker.
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Rhodri Jones, Deacon Manu, Tomas Vallejos, Craig Price, Gareth Davies, Scott Williams, Adam Warren.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Sean Gallagher, Brian MacNeice (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/7; Draw: 28/1; Scarlets to win: 5/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Neil Doak (Ulster) – “(Bouncing back) is exactly what we have to do on Friday night. This group of three matches at the end of this block of fixtures could be the defining period of our season.
“We have shown we can do it (come back from a defeat) and we must put on a solid performance at Ravenhill so that we then get the result we deserve.
“We are in a great position in the RaboDirect PRO12 at the minute and we can still be after Friday, but we have to earn it.
“The Scarlets can be a dangerous side, they have scored a lot of points this season and have a fairly potent back-line. They are a serious threat.
“They are in many ways like us, gutsy and have come together well. Simon Easterby has built a nice little culture there, building from within and putting some things in place.
“They will prove stern opposition and they are not in second place for no reason, they have earned it. They are our closest rivals in the league at the moment and we know it will be a tough game.”
Simon Easterby (Scarlets) – “Our control is where we can put ourselves in the league. We know it’s going to be a difficult competition to stay in the top four but we need to get things right in our game this weekend to start with and the boys have been very positive in training this week.
“There’s a strong team ethic in our squad and with the quality and experience we have in our ranks, regardless of our injury list, there’s plenty of intent to put things right and it’s a huge opportunity to start that this weekend.
“Ulster have an impressive record at home and they are bringing back their top players in front of a home crowd after resting a big group last weekend.
“They’re in a really good place and are a difficult team to play against – but we showed in early December that we can create decent opportunities against them. This time we need to take advantage of that.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster – Points: Paddy Jackson 63; Tries: Jared Payne, Nick Williams 5 each; Scarlets – Points: Aled Thomas 72; Tries: George North 7
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, March 5, 2010 – Scarlets 25 Ulster 8, Parc y Scarlets
Friday, February 18, 2011 – Scarlets 16 Ulster 18, Parc y Scarlets
Friday, April 1, 2011 – Ulster 20 Scarlets 18, Ravenhill
Saturday, October 29, 2011 – Scarlets 24 Ulster 17, Parc y Scarlets
Friday, December 2, 2011 – Ulster 24 Scarlets 17, Ravenhill
Sunday, December 2, 2012 – Scarlets 12 Ulster 19, Parc y Scarlets
– Ulster’s perfect start to the RaboDirect PRO12 season ended at the 12th hurdle away to Munster last Saturday evening
– The Ulstermen’s only home defeat in the competition since October 2011 was 16-8 to Leinster last April
– Ulster are going for their sixth straight win over a Welsh region
– The Scarlets’ only victory in their last five matches in all competitions was 9-6 at the Cardiff Blues on December 21
– The only side who have a better away record than the Scarlets in the RaboDirect PRO12 this season are Ulster themselves
– Ulster have won four of their last five encounters with the Scarlets. The Welshmen have not triumphed at Ravenhill since September 2008