Ulster test big guns in advance of Euro battle
ULSTER's provincial rivals will be looking for a favour from their northern brethren at Ravenhill tonight as the league leaders welcome second-placed Scarlets to Belfast.
A meeting between the league's top two should be something the Pro12 can crow about, but given the looming Heineken Cup pool deciders and the presence of the Six Nations on the horizon, the domestic fare is being lost in a mire of context this weekend.
Of far more immediate importance is the fitness of front-liners going into next weekend's crunch European clashes and Mark Anscombe's eye will be trained on the second-row, where Dan Tuohy returns to action alongside Lewis Stevenson.
The former lock has missed the Christmas period after injuring his ankle against Northampton, while the latter came back from injury last week against Munster.
Their powerful combination will be crucial to the northern province's efforts when Glasgow Warriors come to town next weekend.
They will want to get back to winning ways after losing in Limerick and, if they do, it will do wonders for the chasing pack in the Pro12.
Ulster are nine points clear of the second-placed Welsh side, but just three points separate them and Leinster in sixth as the jostling for the top four positions continues.
The Llanelli side were hammered last weekend in a Welsh derby against the Ospreys, but can call on George North and Jonathan Davies behind the scrum as they look to bounce back.
Coach Simon Easterby watched his opposite number Anscombe rest almost his entire team last weekend with envy. His side face their fourth away fixture in a row without a number of key players, but the former Ireland international is not writing his team off.
"Ulster have an impressive record at home and they are bringing back their top players in front of a home crowd after resting a big group last weekend," he said.
"They're in a really good place and are a difficult team to play against – but we showed in early December that we can create decent opportunities against them; this time we need to take advantage of that.
"It's been a challenging and intense period of rugby for us (December); it's been a pretty tough period in terms of the fixtures and how many away games we've had and January will be equally challenging with games away in Ulster, Leinster and then Clermont Auvergne at home in the Heineken Cup."
Anscombe recalls eight players for tonight's clash after resting a slew of first-choice players for the defeat to Munster.
Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave join half-backs Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson in coming back in behind the scrum, while up front, Tuohy is back along with Tom Court, captain Chris Henry and Nick Williams, who starts at No 8. John Afoa, Roger Wilson and Paddy Wallace are among the replacements on a strong bench.
A win can all but book their place in the semi-finals, while a strong performance would set the Ulstermen up nicely ahead of their final two Heineken Cup pool games against Glasgow at home and Castres away.
They will be confident of doing so against a team who have been strong on the road, but who they disposed of at Parc y Scarlets last month.
ULSTER – A D'Arcy; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Herring, A Macklin; L Stevenson, D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams. Reps: N Annett, C Black, J Afoa, N McComb, R Wilson, M Heaney, P Wallace, R Andrew
SCARLETS – D Newton; G North, G Maule, J Davies (capt), K Phillips; A Thomas, T Knoyle; P John, E Phillips, J Adriaanse; S Timani, R Kelly; J Turnbull, J Edwards, R McCusker. Reps: M Rees, R Jones, D Manu, T Vallejos, C Price, G Davies, S Williams, A Warren.
REF – L Hodges (WRU)
Ulster v Scarlets,
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