Ulster are hugely determined to back up their achievement of finishing top of the RaboDirect PRO12 table by seeing off the Scarlets’ challenge and qualifying for the May 25 play-off final.
RABODIRECT PRO12 SEMI-FINAL: Friday, May 10
ULSTER (1st) v SCARLETS (4th), Ravenhill, 7.45pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland/RTÉ Two/S4C)
Team News: Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe has made four changes and one positional switch to the team for Friday night’s RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final against the Scarlets at Ravenhill.
Ireland internationals Paddy Jackson, Tom Court, Declan Fitzpatrick and Dan Tuohy all return to the side, while Ruan Pienaar switches from out-half to scrum half.
Paul Marshall, Callum Black and Iain Henderson, who all started last weekend against Cardiff Blues, are named as replacements for the play-off.
Tighthead prop John Afoa was unavailable for selection, having failed to recover from the hamstring injury that he sustained in the runaway win over Cardiff.
Ulster finished top of the RaboDirect PRO12 table and qualified for a play-off for the first time in two years.
Anscombe’s side will play the Scarlets for a place in the May 25 final. The Welsh region finished fourth in the league and will be making their first appearance in the play-offs.
The game will mark the end of an era at Ravenhill as Ulster fans bid farewell to the ground’s historic grandstand.
It opened on January 12, 1924 and has witnessed almost 90 years of Ulster rugby. Demolition work will begin on the stand next week as part the ongoing £14.7 million redevelopment of the ground.
Tickets for the Ulster v Scarlets match are still available to buy and can be purchased here.
Meanwhile, Scarlets boss Simon Easterby has opted for just three changes to his matchday squad from last weekend’s disappointing 41-17 home defeat to Benetton Treviso.
Wales international Rhys Priestland returns to the starting line-up at out-half after two appearances from the bench during his comeback from injury.
Hooker Emyr Phillips replaces the injured Matthew Rees (groin) among the replacements and Gareth Owen comes onto the bench for Gareth Maule (thumb).
Back rower Rob McCusker, who was withdrawn late against Treviso with a rib injury, returns to captain his side from number 8.
The last time West Wales rugby held the trophy was in the Celtic League’s first season in 2004, however history lessons and memory lane have not formed part of the preparations this week from Easterby who lifted that trophy as the region’s captain.
ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Tommy Bowe; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rory Best, Declan Fitzpatrick, Johann Muller (capt), Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Ricky Lutton, Iain Henderson, Mike McComish, Paul Marshall, Michael Allen, Peter Nelson.
SCARLETS: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Andy Fenby; Rhys Priestland, Aled Davies; Phil John, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, George Earle, Johan Snyman, Aaron Shingler, Josh Turnbull, Rob McCusker (capt).
Replacements: Emyr Phillips, Rhodri Jones, Jacobie Adriannse, Jake Ball, Sione Timani, Gareth Davies, Owen Williams, Gareth Owen.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Andrew McMenemy, Adrian Graves (both Scotland)
Television Match Official: Jim Yuille (Scotland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/7; Draw: 25/1; Scarlets to win: 5/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Paddy Jackson (Ulster) – “I think the start of the season is forgotten about really. We move on and we leave that in the past, it’s the next game that matters.
“Our last match against the Cardiff Blues, we didn’t start as well as we wanted to and they definitely made us work for the (37-13) victory and we will need to improve against the Scarlets.
“We beat them earlier in the season handsomely but the Scarlets are a team that can beat anyone on their day when they get things right.
“But we’re determined to make sure that we can keep our form going and get some silverware into the trophy cabinet. We went out of Europe so there is this chance now to come up with some performances and be successful.
“I think that Leinster game (when we won 22-18 at the RDS in March) was important in getting our confidence back, we played well and got a good result which we knew we were capable of.
“We had a lot of internationals missing and plenty of injuries but we’ve got those players back now and we feel like we’re on form again.”
Simon Easterby (Scarlets) – “All that happened last week against Treviso has been firmly put to bed now. We are one of four teams that have 80 minutes of rugby in front of them to prove their ability and battle for a place in the final.
“This is where we wanted to be this season, we’ve achieved a top four finish, now we have to bring everything we have to this game to back up all the hard work we’ve put in throughout the season.
“We have played some good rugby to get ourselves to this position and some strong winning rugby at places we were not expected to win at and that’s our focus going into this game. We’ve used last Friday as a motivator to produce the sort of performance you’d expect from a top four side and from the Scarlets jersey.
“We have plenty to face in coming up against Ulster. They have been pretty much unbeatable this season and they are in the driving seat at home.
“What we have to bring is our commitment, ambition and desire to win. That has to be in body as well as mind and shown in our work rate and intensity on the field.
“Sides will be threatened by the players we put on the park, there’s a good mix in our team and we know the quality that key Scarlets players can bring to our performance.
“We’ll have a good travelling support out there who will get behind us and make their voices heard. We want to give them a performance they can really cheer about after the disappointment of our final home game.
“It’s going to be a huge night for us as Scarlets – we have this opportunity in front of us now and we’ll give it everything we have.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster – Points: Ruan Pienaar 141; Tries: Andrew Trimble 10; Scarlets – Points: Owen Williams 106; Tries: George North 9
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
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
Friday, January 4, 2013 – Ulster 47 Scarlets 17, Ravenhill
– Ulster finished top of the pile in the RaboDirect PRO12 table this season to qualify for a first play-off since the 2010/11 season
– The Ulstermen have lost just one of their last six encounters in the competition: 14-8 at Edinburgh on March 22
– Ulster’s only defeat to a Welsh region in their last nine such matches was 16-12 at home to the Ospreys on February 8
– The Scarlets’ five-match winning run in the PRO12 came to a shuddering halt with their 41-17 reversal at the hands of Benetton Treviso at Parc y Scarlets in round 22
– The Welshmen’s last five fixtures against Irish provinces have all been won by the home side on the day. This is Scarlets’ first appearance in the play-offs
– Ulster have won five of their last six contests with the Scarlets with the Welshmen’s only success during that time being a 24- 17 victory at Parc y Scarlets in October 2011
– The Scarlets have not been victorious at Ravenhall since the opening round of the 2008/09 season