All eyes on Jackson as Anscombe puts rocket under Ulster fringe men
THE result of Ulster's clash with Treviso tonight is of secondary importance to most Irish rugby fans, with Paddy Jackson's return to the kicking tee of far more interest on a national level.
It has come a fortnight later than Ireland needed, but Jackson will also assume responsibility for Ulster's kicking strategy tonight.
And with the prognosis on Jonathan Sexton's recovery changing on a daily basis, it is imperative he kicks well at goal.
Jackson has a 75pc return from his kicking with Ulster this season. It's not a great return but is a competent one.
Declan Kidney will be an interested viewer tonight. The Ireland coach has despatched Mark Tainton to Rodney Parade to watch Leinster – Kidney himself will watch Leinster's and Connacht's games from his couch.
Ulster have made seven changes to the team that lost in Glasgow last Friday for tonight's game.
It is particularly exciting to see Darren Cave back in the side as he is one of the contenders in the Brian O'Driscoll succession stakes.
Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Declan Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson and Mike McComish are also included in what is a strong looking pack.
Coach Mark Anscombe has also made three positional changes, the most notable of which sees captain John Afoa switch from tighthead to loosehead prop. It will be the first time that Afoa has started for Ulster in the No 1 shirt.
Andrew Trimble moves from outside-centre to his more familiar position on the right wing, while Michael Allen switches flanks and will start at No 11.
Nigel Brady, Callum Black, Neil McComb and Ali Birch drop to the bench alongside Ricky Lutton, Paul Marshall, Niall O'Connor and Chris Cochrane.
"It is good to give the guys who are on the periphery of the international team some game time. We welcome them back and with the experience that they bring, they will only strengthen our side," said Anscombe.
Ulster have lost two of their last three matches and, while they are still in control at the top of the Pro12 table, they are being chased down by Glasgow and Leinster, who have both closed the gap that existed at the turn of the year.
"We have to nail the game tonight. We need a performance that delivers the win. We have not been on our game in recent weeks and it is disappointing. Some boys have not grabbed their chance and that is disappointing," added Anscombe.
"This is the last game in the present block of games before a break, so a victory would be good. We have been reeled in. We were 11 points clear, now it's just three.
"But these things will happen during a long season. You will not go through a 22-game campaign with a 10-point gap in any competition at this level."
Treviso's form has stuttered since the turn of the year.
The Italian national side rely heavily on them – 14 members of the Azzurri's match-day squad against Wales were affiliated to the club – and this has taken its toll on their results. Their win over Munster last weekend will, however, ensure they arrive at Ravenhill in confident mood.
ULSTER – R Andrew, A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, M Allen, P Jackson, R Pienaar; J Afoa, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson, D Tuohy, I Henderson, M McComish, R Diack. Reps: N Brady, C Black, R Lutton, N McComb, A Birch, P Marshall, N O'Connor, C Cochrane.
TREVISO – B Williams, L Nitoglia, L Morisi, D La Grange, G Toniolatti; A Di Bernardo, F Semenzato, A De Marchi, F Sbaraglini, L Cittadini, V Bernabo, C Van Zyl, R Barbieri, D Budd, C Loamanu. Reps: G Maistri, M Muccignat, B Roux, M Fuser, M Filippucci, P Derbyshire, J Ambrosini, T Iannone.
REF – A McMenemy
Ulster v Treviso,
Live, BBC 2, 7.05