Full-back role for Bowe in Ireland audition
ALL eyes will be on Tommy Bowe at Rodney Parade tonight as the Ulster, Ireland and Lions star is redeployed to the unfamiliar full-back berth in an audition for the November internationals.
Rob Kearney's back surgery has thrown a major spanner in Declan Kidney's plans for the games against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina next month and it appears that the 28-year-old Monaghan man could reprise his old schoolboy role on the highest stage.
That will only happen if he comes through tonight's clash against the Dragons unscathed and playing well.
Bowe has readjusted well to life in a white jersey since his return from Wales and is a certain starter against the Springboks in 15 days' time.
Mark Anscombe has had to drop Jared Payne -- who has starred in every minute of Ulster's campaign so far -- in order to facilitate the national interest, while All Black prop John Afoa also drops to the bench to give Declan Fitzpatrick a run out.
The prop won two caps in New Zealand last summer, but after an injury-hit start to the season the tight-head was left out of Wednesday's initial squad. If he comes through tonight's clash unscathed, he could be added to the Ireland set-up for squad training next week.
Ulster fans will be interested to see how Anscombe's decision to start both of his in-form scrum-halves will go. Paul Marshall was harshly dropped for last week's Heineken Cup win over Glasgow but he returns as Ruan Pienaar's undoubted class is accommodated at out-half.
Paddy Jackson will be concerned as he watches from the bench as, if the duo click, he could be spending a lot more time there.
New Zealander Anscombe has opted to leave Paddy Wallace at inside centre ahead of Luke Marshall, despite the Ballymoney man's selection in the Ireland squad ahead of his 33-year-old rival. Up front, Lewis Stevenson is promoted to replace Johann Muller, who will miss up to eight weeks with a thumb injury.
"I'm relishing the opportunities to play at the minute," said the big second-row, who came from the same Ballyclare High School background as his hero Gary Longwell.
"Last season was a sort of bedding-in season after my return from England and playing club rugby for Belfast Harlequins.
"With Johann out, I can work really hard and try to nail down that starting spot. Hopefully this is a start of a series of games for me where I can develop my game and build on my progress. There is a big opportunity for me, and a bit of pressure as Johann is such an important player for us."
Roger Wilson's slow comeback continues with the returning No 8 named on the bench, while Stephen Ferris failed his fitness test and continues to miss out.
Ireland squad members Iain Henderson and Chris Henry are joined by Nick Williams in the Ulster back-row.
Only Italian strugglers Zebre have a worse record than the Dragons, who have just two wins to their name this season.
Much will be expected of Wales internationals Tom Prydie, Rob Sidoli and Toby Faletau, but the reality for league leaders Ulster is that this is not where they should be losing their 100pc start to the season.
Dragons -- T Prydie; W Harries, A Hughes, A Tuilagi, T Chavhanga; L Robling, J Evans; O Evans, Steve Jones (capt), N Buck; A Jones, R Sidoli; T Brown, J Groves, T Faletau. Reps: S Parry, N Williams, D Way, I Nimmo, N Cudd, L Davies, Steffan Jones, P Leach.
Ulster -- T Bowe; C Gilroy, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; R Pienaar, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick; L Stevenson, D Tuohy; I Henderson, C Henry (capt), N Williams. Reps: N Brady, C Black, J Afoa, M McComish, R Wilson, P Jackson, L Marshall, J Payne.
Ref -- P Fitzgibbon (IRFU)
Dragons v Ulster,
Live, BBC1, 7.05