Wednesday 28 June 2017

Big guns provide boost as Ulster bid to bounce back

Rory Best of Ulster. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Rory Best of Ulster. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ulster risk losing serious ground in the race for the top four of the Guinness Pro12 tonight if they can't turn their away form around.

They've won just once on the road since September and with a growing injury crisis that has now claimed Ruan Pienaar and the criticism of his regime growing louder, Les Kiss could do with a performance from his players in west Wales.

The Scarlets sit in fourth place, four points ahead of the Ulstermen. Although league leaders Munster are in European action, all of the other teams in the play-off chase have winnable fixtures this weekend, which adds to Ulster's need to win.

After an insipid display at the RDS that drew heavy criticism from former Ravenhill hero Stephen Ferris, Ulster at least are able to call on their spiritual leader Rory Best as well as Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Iain Henderson, who will all strengthen their hand.

Andrew Trimble captains the side, with Tommy Bowe dropping to the bench to accommodate Jacob Stockdale's inclusion, while Paul Marshall replaces knee victim Pienaar at scrum-half.

Wayne Pivac's side are on a roll, winning their last eight home matches including a victory over Toulon, and they're eight from nine in the Pro12.

That can't be said of an Ulster outfit who are dealing with a number of high-profile absentees and have rested star full-back Charles Piutau, who has put in a heavy workload in recent weeks.

Ulster, who have a yet to be rescheduled game in hand, are on the cusp of a Champions Cup exit, so are about to have all of their eggs in the Pro12 basket.

Their form must be a huge worry for Kiss, whose second year in charge started well, but has come undone in recent months as the injuries take their toll.

The return of Henderson and Best adds some much-needed steel to the pack, but the presence of a pair of second-rows on the bench indicates that the northern province are struggling for options.

Henderson will shift to No 6 if needed, but after an hour slogging it in the second-row his back-row impact is bound to be lessened.

Kiss is in a needs-must situation and front-row injuries mean fit-again youngster Ross Kane starts at tighthead, with Johnny Simpson - who has made just one senior appearance - on the bench.

Although they are both known for their attacking approaches, these teams are the two lowest try scorers in the top seven of the league and will both be hoping for something to click in terms of their attack in the weeks to come.

Certainly, the Scarlets are on an upward trajectory and are eyeing consolidation in the coming weeks.

"It's a massive game in the context of that push for top four," Pivac said. "Our next two games in the Pro12 are Ulster and Glasgow, teams sitting in fourth, fifth and sixth all within a couple of points of each other. This game is a big match."

With Wales hooker Ken Owens back to lead them, the home side will fancy their chances of putting some daylight between themselves and the Irish side.

Verdict: Scarlets

SCARLETS - J McNicholl; L Williams, J Davies, H Parkes, S Evans; D Jones, G Davies; J Evans, K Owens (capt), W Kruger; J Ball, T Price; L Rawlins, J Davies, J Barclay. Reps: R Elias, W Jones, N Thomas, J MacLeod, W Boyde, A Davies, A Thomas, S Hughes.

ULSTER - L Ludik; A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Best, R Kane; K Treadwell, I Henderson; C Ross, C Henry, S Reidy. Reps: J Andrew, A Warwick, J Simpson, F van der Merwe, P Browne, D Shanahan, B Herron, T Bowe.

Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)

Scarlets v Ulster,

Live, BBC2 NI, 7.35

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