Ulster are heavily favoured to score their fourth successive win over Italian opposition when they entertain lowly Zebre in their final match before Christmas.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, December 20
ULSTER (4th) v ZEBRE (11th), Ravenhill, 7.05pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Paddy Wallace will play for Ulster for the first time in nine months as the province take on Zebre at Ravenhill on Friday in the RaboDirect PRO12.
Wallace, who has made a record 188 appearances for Ulster, suffered an ACL injury against Glasgow Warriors in February. He returns to the senior team following two games for the Ulster Ravens in the British & Irish Cup.
He starts at inside centre and is one of nine personnel and three positional switches to the side that beat Benetton Treviso last weekend as head coach Mark Anscombe chooses to rotate his squad.
Ricky Andrew starts at full-back with Jared Payne moving to outside centre. Craig Gilroy switches flanks and starts on the left wing with Michael Allen coming in on the right.
Ruan Pienaar continues at scrum half with James McKinney starting at out-half.
There is a whole new front row, with Callum Black replacing Tom Court at loosehead prop, Niall Annett selected at hooker and Ricky Lutton named at tighthead.
Lewis Stevenson has recovered from the medial ligament injury he picked up last month and joins captain Johann Muller in the second row.
With Roger Wilson sustaining a mild ankle injury last weekend, Robbie Diack moves to number 8, Sean Doyle keeps his place at openside flanker and Mike McComish comes in on the blindside.
Adam Macklin is named as a replacement and is also in line to make his return to first team action having suffered an ACL injury last season.
Fellow prop Declan Fitzpatrick was unavailable for selection as he is suffering from a virus, while John Afoa is back home in New Zealand.
Looking ahead to the game, the fit-again Wallace said: “My motivation is through the roof. I hope that I can bring a few players along with me because I am so pumped up to play again at Ravenhill.
“So many people have supported me through a hard time such as the medical staff and the strength and conditioning coaches and I want to do their support justice.”
Meanwhile, full-back Dion Berryman and flanker Filippo Ferrarini return to the Zebre team as the Italians look to avenge last month’s 19-11 defeat.
Andrea Cavinato’s men will want to produce a good performance in Belfast as they gear up for their traditional Christmas derbies against Benetton Treviso.
New Zealander Berryman is the only foreigner in an almost all-Italian starting line-up, with top-scoring out-half Luciano Orquera lining out at half-back with Guglielmo Palazzani who scored a try in the sides’ last meeting.
ULSTER: Ricky Andrew; Craig Gilroy, Jared Payne, Paddy Wallace, Michael Allen; James McKinney, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Niall Annett, Ricky Lutton, Johann Muller (capt), Lewis Stevenson, Mike McComish, Sean Doyle, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Tom Court, Adam Macklin, Neil McComb, Conor Joyce, Michael Heaney, Peter Nelson, David McIlwaine.
ZEBRE: Dion Berryman; Leonardo Sarto, Tommaso Iannone, Roberto Quartaroli, Giovanbattista Venditti; Luciano Orquera, Guglielmo Palazzani; Dario Chistolini, Andrea Manici, Andrea de Marchi, Quintin Geldenhuys, Marco Bortolami (capt), Filippo Cristiano, Filippo Ferrarini, Nicola Cattina.
Replacements: Tommaso D’Apice, Matias Aguero, Luca Redolfini, Michael van Vuuren, Emiliano Caffini, Alberto Chillon, Kameli Ratuvou, Brendon Leonard.
Referee: Neil Hennessy (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Sean Gallagher, Dermot Blake (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Simon McDowell (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/150; Draw: 40/1; Ulster to win: 18/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Mark Anscombe (Ulster) – “This is another big block of fixtures for us. We knew at the start of the year that the Christmas period was going to be a defining part of the campaign for us.
“The thing is that we need to be really careful. We play four big teams that have been successful in Europe and you could be tempted to look ahead.
“All of a sudden Zebre slip into town, you underestimate them and they do a job on you.”
Top Scorers – 2013/14 RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster – Points: Paddy Jackson 76; Tries: Michael Allen 3; Zebre – Points: Luciano Orquera 67; Tries: Leonardo Sarto 3
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Sunday, November 18, 2012 – Zebre 25 Ulster 27, Stadio XXV Aprile
Friday, February 15, 2013 – Ulster 26 Zebre 3, Ravenhill
Saturday, November 30, 2013 – Zebre 11 Ulster 19, Stadio XXV Aprile
– Ulster’s only loss in their last eleven fixtures in all tournaments was 17-9 at the Scarlets in the RaboDirect PRO12 on November 2
– The Ulstermen have lost just once at home since early February: 13-12 to Glasgow Warriors in round 2 of the PRO12
– Ulster have met Italian opposition on 24 previous occasions in all competitions and lost only once: 23-12 at home to Benetton Treviso in the PRO12 in October 2011
– Zebre are winless in their last ten contests in all competitions since beating Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park in round 3 of the PRO12, although they did draw 16-all with the Scarlets in Parma on October 25
– The two sides have met on three previous occasions with Ulster victorious in each instance, including a 19-11 win in Parma in round 9