Ulster are back in RaboDirect PRO12 action today as they take on bottom side Zebre in a rescheduled round 4 fixture, aiming to extend their lead at the top of the table.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Sunday, November 18
ZEBRE (12th) v ULSTER (1st), Stadio XXV Aprile, 3pm local time/2pm Irish time (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland red button/Sport Italia)
Team News: Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe has made five personnel changes for the rescheduled RaboDirect PRO12 match against Zebre at the Stadio XXV Aprile.
Ireland props Tom Court and Declan Fitzpatrick have been released from international duty and have been named on the bench.
Half-backs Michael Heaney and Niall O’Connor will start for the Ulstermen in place of Paul Marshall and Ruan Pienaar, both of whom are on international duty this weekend.
Jared Payne will continue at outside centre alongside Paddy Wallace, after scoring a brace of tries in a very impressive performance against Edinburgh earlier this month.
Michael Allen returns to the team for the first time since picking up an ankle injury against the Cardiff Blues in September.
Allen’s inclusion on the right wing results in Chris Cochrane switching to the left flank in place of Ireland XV player Craig Gilroy. Academy full-back Ricky Andrew will make his second start in the back-three.
The front row of Callum Black, John Afoa and Nigel Brady remains intact, with the latter continuing as captain in the absence of Johann Muller.
Robbie Diack – usually a back row player – will come into the second row after Lewis Stevenson’s recent injury. He will be partnered at lock by Neil McComb.
The selected back row sees Nick Williams come in at blindside flanker, while Mike McComish and Roger Wilson retain their places at openside flanker and number 8 respectively.
Court and Fitzpatrick are joined on the bench by hooker Rob Herring, Academy second row James Simpson and Ali Birch who is yet to play this season.
The back-line replacements are all products of the Ulster Academy – Blane McIlroy, Stuart Olding and Peter Nelson.
Meanwhile, there are two personnel changes to the Zebre team that tested out the Scarlets in the previous round.
Leandro Sarto will start on the right wing with permit player Alessandro Castagnoli making his debut on the left. Samuele Pace reverts to the centre to partner Matteo Pratichetti.
Former Waratahs captain Daniel Halangahu will line out at out-half for the first time, linking up with Tito Tebaldi, the man-of-the-match from the Scarlets game.
Hooker Andrea Manici will be making his first start for Zebre in his hometown of Parma, while flanker Filippo Cristiano captains the Italian side for only the second time.
ZEBRE: David Odiete; Leonardo Sarto, Matteo Pratichetti, Samuele Pace, Alessandro Castagnoli; Daniel Halangahu, Tito Tebaldi; Matias Aguero, Andrea Manici, Luca Redolfini, Josh Sole, Filippo Cazzola, Filippo Ferrarini, Filippo Cristiano (capt), Andries van Schalkwyk.
Replacements: Andrea de Marchi, Salvatore Perugini, Flavio Tripodi, Emiliano Caffini, Nicola Belardo, Alberto Chillon, Ross McCann, Nicola Cattina.
ULSTER: Ricky Andrew; Michael Allen, Jared Payne, Paddy Wallace, Chris Cochrane; Niall O’Connor, Michael Heaney; Callum Black, Nigel Brady (capt), John Afoa, Robbie Diack, Neil McComb, Nick Williams, Mike McComish, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Tom Court, Declan Fitzpatrick, James Simpson, Ali Birch, Blane McIlroy, Stuart Olding, Peter Nelson.
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Matteo Liperini, Stefano Penne (both Italy)
Television Match Official: Alan Falzone (Italy)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Zebre to win: 9/2; Draw: 25/1; Ulster to win: 1/7
Pre-Match Quotes: Jonny Bell (Ulster) – “The guys have had a week off, they have worked hard in training this week, so they are ready to go.
“Zebre are desperate for a win, particularly in front of their home fans, and we know that in the past, Aironi, always produced one big result in the season, and we just have to make sure it is not us.
“The players have to make sure they are mentally in the right place before they go into the match.”
Christian Gajan (Zebre) – “The last two games have raised morale, at Munster we played well in the first half and (against the Scarlets) in Wales we were so close to winning the game.
“The morale is high, the staff and players haven’t eased off, we are always trying to get better, now to be better we have to win.
“We know (Ulster) have several players away on international duty. They are dominating the league. We have nothing to lose and will give our all on the pitch to earn a little more respect.
“Every match there are one or two injuries but that’s because the games are hard and we have a squad which needs experience.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Zebre – Points: Luciano Orquera 29; Tries: Samuele Pace, Andries van Schalkwyk, Sinoti Sinoti, Luciano Orquera, Luca Redolfini, Matteo Pratichetti 1 each; Ulster – Points: Paddy Jackson 46; Tries: Jared Payne 5
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
– Zebre pushed the Scarlets very hard at Parc y Scarlets in round 8 and were in fact leading and eyeing a possible maiden victory with just seven minutes left. In the end, they lost 22-13
– Ulster’s perfect start to the season continued apace with a comprehensive 45-20 bonus point victory over Edinburgh at Ravenhill last time out
– The Ulstermen top the RaboDirect PRO12 table with this game in hand. They have never played Zebre before
– The only time they have ever been defeated by an Italian side was when Benetton Treviso visited Belfast in October 2011 and won 23-12