LITTLE over a week away from their biggest game in 12 years, Ulster are looking for the perfect send-off when they host the Scarlets in the Magners League this evening.
Well aware of the difficulty of their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton on Sunday week, coach Brian McLaughlin has picked his strongest side to gear up for that challenge tonight.
In this regard, he has been helped considerably by the return of prop BJ Botha and out-half Ian Humphreys. Botha has been missing since January with an elbow injury while Humphreys was ruled out of the last three matches with a hamstring problem. Rory Best is also back to captain the side from hooker.
Encouragingly from an Ireland point of view, Willie Faloon is at open-side -- suggesting he will also start there against the Saints -- alongside South Africans Robbie Diack and Pedrie Wannenburg.
While the best balanced back-row, in Stephen Ferris' continued absence, would appear to be Wannenburg at No 6, Faloon at No 7 and Chris Henry (on the bench tonight) at No 8, affording Faloon the opportunity to stake his claims for a late World Cup surge is good news for Ireland.
Less helpful for Ireland is Tom Court playing loose-head when he needs tight-head exposure following problems against England. However, Botha is central to Ulster's Heineken Cup hopes and needs must.
Ruan Pienaar is back at scrum-half. With three victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat show-stealers this season, Pienaar has begun to justify his salary, although his overall influence has not yet hit the heights of his dramatic place-kicking performances.
There is balance out wide also, with strength and pace on the wings in Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli, elusive running from full-back Adam D'Arcy and outside centre Nevin Spence, and the play-making ability of Paddy Wallace at No 12.
The Scarlets bring a strong side to Belfast, but Ulster are seeking their sixth league win on the bounce and the visitors have not won in their last five clashes with Irish teams.
McLaughlin's men won 18-16 at Llanelli in February and should seal their first 'double' over the Scarlets -- as well as the send-off they crave.
ULSTER -- A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best (capt), BJ Botha; J Muller, D Tuohy; R Diack, W Faloon, P Wannenburg. Reps: A Kyriacou, P McAllister, D Fitzpatrick, T Barker, C Henry, P Marshall, I Whitten, C Gilroy.
SCARLETS -- R Priestland; G Maule, R King, J Davies, M Stoddart; S Jones, T Knoyle; I Thomas, M Rees (capt), R Thomas; L Reed, R McCusker; J Turnbull, J Edwards, B Morgan. Reps: E Phillips, R Jones, P Edwards, A Shingler, D Lyons, M Roberts, D Evans, S Williams.
REF -- G Knox (Scotland).
Ulster v Scarlets,
Live, BBC 2, 7.05