The 23-year-old Dublin-born tyro has made 10 appearances so far for Ulster, all from the bench in his two-year spell in Belfast. While Ulster’s star performer Ruan Pienaar is sidelined for at least another three weeks following minor knee surgery, Shanahan comes in for veteran Paul Marshall who reverts to the bench following Ulster’s disappointing 16-13 defeat to Scarlets last week.
Shanahan, noted for his swift pass and eye for a break, is partnered by the reliable Paddy Jackson at half-back while All Black Charles Piutau returns to action this time in a roving right-wing role while skipper Andrew Trimble moves to the left. Shanahan’s Ballymena club colleague Ross Kane will also make his European debut when he lines out at tight-head alongside Rory Best and Callum Black.
In the other changes up front fro last week’s reverse, Iain Henderson drops back to number six while Peter Browne joins Kieran Treadwell in the engine room.
The selection of Shanahan is a brave move by Director of Rugby Les Kiss who has been frustrated this season with the inconsistency of the Ulster side who have slipped to sixth place in the PRO12. Shanahan, who learned the rugby ropes at Belvedere College, came through the system with the Ulster Academy but has mainly had to be satisfied with club rugby this season.
Ulster lie third in Pool 5 on points different from next week’s opponents, Bordeaux, and need to win at Sandy tomorrow if they are to have any chance of making the last eight, probably as one of the best three runners-up from across the five pools.
Once again, Ulster will be up against familiar faces with Exeter led by former Ireland U20 and Dungannon fly-half Gareth Steenson who came within a whisker of winning the game for the Devon side when the teams met at the Kingspan before Christmas.
Ian Whitten, who had an excellent three-year spell at Ravenhill will be in the midfield, and up against Stuart McCloskey who believes Ulster will come up trumps.
“I can’t see why we cannot go over there and win,” said McCloskey who has been in barn-storming form this season.
“We need to win to progress, so hopefully we can scrape four points then get back to Belfast and hopefully pick up a bonus point against Bordeaux next week.
“That would get us 18 points, so you never know what would happen then. Recently it has been small errors and bits and pieces just not going our way that has cost us. Coming off a couple of losses lately, everyone this week has focused and are now on the same page.
“We have lost seven of our last 11 games, but teams like Leinster and Clermont are not bad teams by any means. Yes, it’s gong to be tough, but if we turn up and play to our best ability, I can’t see how we cannot win”
The hosts make seven changes to the side which drew with 14-man Saracens last week with centres Michele Campagnaro and Whitten form a new partnership.
Winger Olly Woodburn is back, scrum-half Dave Lewis replaces Will Chudley while prop Ben Moon and second rows Mitch Lees and Jonny Hill are recalled.