Wallace returns amid hopes Ferris also on way back
Grand Slam hero wants maximum points against Zebre to keep up Ulster's momentum on all fronts
Grand Slam winner Paddy Wallace makes a welcome return to action for Ulster in Ravenhill tonight after 10 months on the sidelines -- and he is confident that another Ireland hero from 2009, Stephen Ferris, won't be too far behind.
Wallace underwent a knee reconstruction and shoulder surgery, ruining most of 2013 for the 34-year-old, while Ferris has been out for even longer, with the back-rower not featuring since his ankle crumbled again in November 2012.
Wallace revealed this week he feared for his career and he admits to also fretting about his team-mate's future. however, he is hopeful that the boisterous blindside flanker can return to action in the New Year as he ramps up his recovery.
"If you had asked me in October, I would have said it was unlikely that Stephen could make it," says Wallace.
"But he's really progressed in the last two weeks and he's getting more comfortable. He's on the Ultra G treadmill, doing squats and getting weight on the ankle.
"It's really nice to see because there were some terrible times for him down in our old gym. Things weren't progressing at all and it was looking bleak. Hopefully, in the near future, we can see him back in Ulster colours."
And Wallace can't wait to get a piece of first-team action himself against Pro12 whipping boys Zebre, as Ulster seek to maintain the momentum of their back-to-back 10-point haul from the December double Heineken Cup date with Treviso.
"We want to continue the momentum from the Heineken Cup," he says.
"There are a lot of changes to the team, but when your number is called, you have to step up and continue with what the squad has been achieving.
"There won't be a more committed player than me tonight and it's very exciting for me personally.
"But it's important for us as a group to keep the ball rolling. There won't be much wriggle room towards the end of the season in terms of the top four, so we need to maximise the points."
Ricky Andrew is named at full-back and Craig Gilroy and Michael Allen are the wingers in a team which shows nine changes from the away win over Treviso.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has named a whole new front-row, with Callum Black replacing Tom Court at loosehead, Niall Annett in at hooker and Ricky Lutton getting the chance to impress at tighthead.
Lewis Stevenson has recovered from a medial ligament injury and joins skipper Johann Muller in the second- row.
With Roger Wilson sustaining an ankle injury last weekend, Robbie Diack moves to No 8, while Sean Doyle retains his place at openside and Mike McComish is in at blindside.
Adam Macklin is named as a replacement and could make his return to first-team action tonight having suffered an ACL injury last season.
Declan Fitzpatrick is unavailable because of a virus, while fellow prop John Afoa is, again, at home in New Zealand.
"You get the highs of the European games and then you drop the intensity down a little bit," says Ulster assistant Neil Doak.
"We talked about complacency creeping in. Obviously Zebre had two very tough weeks in Europe, but we have emphasised that we dare not take them lightly.
"To be honest, we have not done terribly well against Zebre at any time. We did win couple of weeks ago, but it was tight enough.
"They held on to the ball well and we gave them too many soft shoulders. So, we know that we have to be mentally aware of the challenge.
"You can be sure they will be looking to see if we are off our game, off our normal pace. They would love to come here just before Christmas and toss the cat among the pigeons.
"To beat them we must do the basics well, hold on to the ball for phases and force them to defend."
Ulster's only loss in their last 11 fixtures in all tournaments was to Scarlets in November and they've only lost once at home -- to Glasgow -- since February.
Hapless Zebre are winless in their last 10 contests in all tournaments since beating Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park in September, although they did draw with Scarlets in Parma three weeks later.
Ulster will be chasing a bonus point to keep up the pressure on the leading pack and that should comfortably be within their compass.
Ulster -- R Andrew; C Gilroy, J Payne, P Wallace, M Allen; J McKinney, R Pienaar; C Black, N Annett, R Lutton, J Muller capt, L Stevenson, M McComish, S Doyle, R Diack.Replacements: R Herring, T Court, A Macklin, N McComb, C Joyce, M Heaney, P Nelson, D McIlwaine.
Zebre -- D Berryman; L Sarto, T Iannone, R Quartaroli, G Venditti; L Orquera, G Palazzani; D Chistolini, A Manici, A De Marchi, Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami capt, F Cristiano, F Ferrarini, N Cattina.
Replacements: T D'Apice, M Aguero, L Redolfini, M Van Vurne, E Caffini, A Chillon, K Ratuvou, B Leonard.
Ref -- N Hennessy (WRU)
ULSTER V ZEBRE,
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