By Peter O'Dwyer
Plots, sub-plots and challenges abound ahead of Ulster’s clash with Leinster at the newly refurbished Ravenhill tonight with Leinster looking to cement their place at the top, but more crucially Ulster continuing their bid to claim the final semi-final berth.
Add to the mix that it is an inter-pro derby, Joe Schmidt will no doubt be watching as he decides on his squad for the tour to Argentina to June and the possibility that it could be both Tom Court and captain Johann Muller’s final game at Ravenhill and it makes for one hell of an occasion.
For good measure, tonight is also the official opening of the magnificent new Ravenhill.
For Ulster, the big news is the return of Jared Payne from suspension following his much talked about sending off against Saracens in the Heineken Cup quarter-final.
The South African takes his place at outside centre where he will be hoping to get the better of Brian O'Driscoll in a bid to prove his credentials to his soon-to-be international coach.
Elsewhere, young prop Andrew Warwick comes in at tight-head - with a nod towards next season perhaps with John Afoa leaving the province – while Roger Wilson comes into the back-row having recovered from injury.
Muller and Iain Henderson are the second-row partnership once again, packing down behind Court and Rob Herring who complete the front row.
Wilson’s return means a switch to openside flanker with Nick Williams once again named at number eight.
A very strong backline sees Irish internationals Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble joining Payne and Ricky Andrew who will wear the number 15 jersey.
Leinster meanwhile make four changes to the side that routed Treviso in a nine-try demolition the last time out. Shane Jennings replaces Jordi Murphy in the only alteration to the pack.
Behind the scrum, Ian Madigan starts in place of Jimmy Gopperth while there’s no place for youngsters Darragh Fanning or Noel Reid both of whom were very impressive against the Italians;
Fanning being named Man of the Match and Reid scoring a brace of tries.
In their place come Dave Kearney and Gordon D’Arcy respectively, with Kearney facing a stiff test in the form of international colleague and rival Andrew Trimble.
Leinster had 13 points to spare the last time the side’s met in December and although away from home on this occasion, appear the stronger of the two outfits; particularly up front where Ulster may struggle next season with Afoa, Court and Muller all departing.
Ulster though will not want to lose for a myriad of reasons and will pose a serious threat to the league leaders if they can get ball in hand in behind where their real strength lies.
Kick-off is at 19.30 at Ravenhill.
Ulster: R Andrew, A Trimble, J Payne, L Marshall, T Bowe, P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Herring, A Warwick, J Muller, I Henderson, R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements: N Annett, C Black, A Macklin, D Tuohy, S Doyle, M Heaney, J McKinney, D Cave.
Leinster: R Kearney, Z Kirchner, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Kearney, I Madigan, I Boss; C Healy, S Cronin, M Moore, D Toner, M McCarthy, R Ruddock, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: R Strauss, J McGrath, M Ross, L Cullen, J Murphy, L McGrath, J Gopperth, L Fitzgerald.