Wilson backs injury-ravaged Ulster to learn lessons from last season
OF all the Irish provinces, Ulster have the lightest December load, and it is probably just as well given their injury list.
They begin the first of their three meetings with Italian sides this afternoon with this Pro12 clash against Zebre a nice warm-up for their back-to-back clashes with Treviso in the Heineken Cup.
Given their good start and tough pool they'll be looking to collect at least nine points from a possible 10 in the fortnight to come, while today's game is all about keeping the pressure on in the play-off hunt.
With next week in mind, Mark Anscombe has rested Jared Payne and Ruan Pienaar, while Tommy Bowe is also given the weekend off after his exploits with Ireland.
The New Zealander can be thankful that it's not Leicester or Montpellier his side are facing in the back-to-back clashes after his treatment room became more crowded this week as Iain Henderson, Rory Best and Nick Williams joined the walking wounded. But he can still name an imposing-looking team for the meeting with an improving Zebre side, as Paddy Jackson partners Paul Marshall at half-back and Luke Marshall and Darren Cave continue in the centre.
Outside them, Ricky Andrew starts at full-back, while Craig Gilroy continues his comeback on the left wing with Andrew Trimble on the right.
Zebre are boosted by the return of eight of their nine Italy players after their November schedule, with the pack looking particularly meaty.
John Afoa will be a key figure in the tight, while Dan Tuohy will look to take out some Ireland frustrations with a big display. Robbie Diack captains the side from the blindside.
The long injury list is nothing new for Ulster according to No 8 Roger Wilson, who wants those filling in to step up to the plate.
"There were a few more people in the medical room on Monday when we came back in for training," the former Northampton Saint said.
"We had a similar situation last year at a different stage of the season. It is just the way it seems to happen.
"Of course, it is not ideal, but there is certainly no panic about the situation. We have a good squad and I would be confident in that strength in depth.
"We remember this stage last year when we were picking up wins. A few of them we probably did not deserve, especially the two in Italy and away to Zebre in particular."
That lesson is sure to be mentioned and, having escaped this venue last year, they'll want a more comfortable afternoon today and, despite Zebre's relative upturn, they should get it.
ZEBRE – R Trevisan; L Sarton, K Ratuvou, G Garcia, G Venditti; T Iannone, B Leonard; M Aguero, T D'Apice, D Ryan; Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (capt); M Bergamasco, N Cattina, S Vunisa. Reps: A Manici, S Perugini, L Leibson, E Caffini, F Cristiano, A Chillon, L Orquera, R Quartaroli.
ULSTER – R Andrew; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Herring, J Afoa; N McComb, D Tuohy; R Diack (capt), M McComish, R Wilson. Reps: N Annett, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, C Joyce, S Doyle, M Heaney, J McKinney, M Allen.
REF – A Mc Menemy (Scotland)
Zebre v Ulster,
Live, RTE 2, 2.0