Humphreys in from the cold
IT'S the return of the prodigal son. Ian Humphreys starts his first match of the season for Ulster tonight when Brian McLaughlin's side take on Italian outfit Aironi in their opening Heineken Cup Pool Four clash at Ravenhill (7.30).
Humphreys has been left out in the cold during Ulster's successful start to the Magners League with Niall O'Connor filling the No 10 jersey, along with Paddy Wallace who played there in the drawn game with Connacht -- the only match Ulster failed to win in their first five fixtures.
Arguably the most naturally talented footballer in the Ulster squad and the man at out-half for the province's best days over the past two seasons, Humphreys early season omission was perplexing to say the least. When asked about it at last Monday's Heineken Cup launch in Dublin, McLaughlin said there was nothing behind it only the high level of competition for the position.
O'Connor twisted his ankle in last weekend's win over Glasgow but trained this week indicating that Humphreys inclusion was tactical. O'Connor fails to make the bench as Wallace can switch to 10 with Ian Whitten covering the outside backs. Tactical selection or not, 28-year-old Humphreys has the perfect opportunity to launch his season, particularly as he is partnered with Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half.
Humphreys is the only change to the back-line which sees Wallace and Darren Cave form the centre partnership with Jamie Smith, Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli continuing in the back three.
There is one change to the forwards where Tim Barker's strong early season form is rewarded with his inclusion in the second-row next to Johann Muller, with Dan Tuohy on the bench.
BJ Botha has not recovered sufficiently from the wrist injury sustained against Connacht with props Bryan Young and Tom Court handed the responsibility of combating the powerful Aironi scrum, although the Italians have sprung something of a surprise by leaving the experienced Salavatore Perugini on the bench.
The Heineken Cup debutants bring a bruising front five to Belfast, and although they are without captain and second row Quentin Geldenhuys, they are still able to select former Italy skipper Marco Bortolami and Ulster old boy Carlo Del Fava.
They have a decent set of half-backs in Tito Tebaldi and Ludovic Mercier, whose place-kicking prowess creates an extra imperative for the home team to stay on the right side of referee Chris White.
However, although Danwel Demas carries a running threat from full-back, the absence of centres Dylan Des Fountain and Matteo Pratichetti, has weakened their back-line, which was already their Achilles heel.
They have brought in former Saracens centre Rodd Penney to shore up midfield and the 32-year-old New Zealander has the experience to make an impact but, overall, the Ulster backline looks far more potent.
Pienaar -- as he showed when scoring all of Ulster's points against Glasgow -- carries tremendous scoring potential and the Springbok says he has enjoyed the switch to Belfast and is itching to get stuck into the Heineken Cup.
"Already I feel a part of the Ulster team who I have to say have some great young talent coming up," said Pienaar, who adds an hour onto his daily training regime by practising his goal-kicking.
"It's not like moving from Durban to Cape Town where it is only a couple of hours journey, and you basically know what you are getting into, it's a new country, new culture, new friends and naturally I was a bit nervous.
"But from the moment I touched down, I have been made very welcome and the guys have been great and made life really enjoyable so far. I honestly cannot wait. After a few seasons in the Super 14, I now want to see what it is like in the Heineken Cup."
Ulster secured a hard-fought victory on their visit to Aironi for their league clash last month and they should find it easier this time out. In a manageable pool containing less than convincing Bath and Biarritz sides, Ulster still need to be ruthless and a four-try bonus should be the target tonight.
Whether they can manage that remains to be seen but, if Humphreys finds the form he is capable of first time out, a bonus-point victory is eminently achievable.
ULSTER -- J Smith; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; B Young, R Best (capt), T Court; T Barker, J Muller; P Wannenburg, C Henry, R Diack. Reps: N Brady, P McAllister, A Whitten, D Tuohy, W Faloon, D McIlwaine, I Whitten, P Marshall.
AIRONI -- Danwel Demas; G Toniolatti, R Penney, G Pavan, G Venditti; L Mercier, T Tebaldi; Alberto de Marchi, R Sanatmaria, L Redolfini; C Del Fava, M Bortolami; A Benatti, A Birchall, N Williams. Reps: L Ferraro, Andrea de Marchi, S Perugini, V Liebenberg, N Cattina, P Canavosio, G Pizarro, R Bocchino.
REF -- C White (England)