After back-to-back losses in the Premiership, head coach Johan Ackermann’s hopes of stopping the losing streak have been boosted by the returns to fitness of fly-half Danny Cipriani and exciting young wing Ollie Thorley.
England fly-half Cipriani has not played since sustaining a chest injury during Gloucester’s Heineken Champions Cup home defeat against Exeter Chiefs in round four last month, during which time the Cherry and Whites beat Premiership bottom club Newcastle but lost to both Sale Sharks and Leicester Tigers.
Thorley also returns having been a late withdrawal before last week’s loss to Leicester, when he was replaced by Matt Banahan, who drops out of the squad tonight, while Cipriani’s return sends Owen Williams to the bench.
In the forwards, hooker Henry Walker is promoted to start from a replacement role last weekend, standing in for the injured Jaco Visagie while the all-South African second row is broken up with former Munster lock Gerbrandt Grobler instead partnered by Ed Slater while Springbok Franco Mostert switches to blindside flanker at the expense of Freddie Clarke. At openside Lewis Ludlow starts after swapping places with bench-bound Gareth Evans as captain Ben Morgan continues at No.8.
Ackermann looks to halt slide
“Having those losses were disappointing and not good for us,” the head coach said.
“But we’ve not been sulking about it. This challenge is massive, and if you go into it with a negative mindset, it’s not going to help.”
Johann van Graan has made six changes from the side that beat Guinness PRO14 Conference A rivals Connacht last weekend but it is the retention of centre Chris Farrell that is most significant.
Farrell was thought to have been ruled out following a knock to his right knee in Saturday’s win in Galway with head coach van Graan portraying a player who feared the worst after eight months out following a serious injury to his left knee.
Yet Farrell retains the 13 jersey at outside centre and is reunited with the recalled Rory Scannell in midfield after the Corkman was rested last time out. Scannell replaces double try scorer against Connacht Dan Goggin, who drops to the replacements, ousting Sammy Arnold as the outside back cover.
Also back in the starting line-up is full-back Mike Haley, whose selection sees Andrew Conway return to the right wing as Alex Wootton drops to the A team this weekend, while Conor Murray resumes ownership of the number nine jersey after starting on the bench last Saturday when Alby Mathewson started, the All Black re-joining the replacements.
In the forward pack, there is a change to both corners of the front row with Dave Kilcoyne replacing Jeremy Loughman, who impressed against Connacht, and Stephen Archer rotating with John Ryan for his first start since the December 21 trip to Ulster. The other change sees CJ Stander replace Arno Botha at No.8, as he did from the bench during the second half in Galway.
Talent to Beirne
Tadhg Beirne set the Champions Cup alight last season with a scintillating try for Scarlets against Bath during the pool stages, one of three for the Welsh region in their run to the semi-finals. He has played every minute of Munster’s Heineken Champions Cup pool campaign this season and though he is yet to score a try for his new club, the versatile forward has made a big impact.
Beirne hit the ground running with a man-of-the-match display in the round one draw at Exeter Chiefs in October and goes into round five as the competition’s joint leader for turnovers with nine.