The return of top try scorer Craig Gilroy is the only change for Ulster in this afternoon’s win or bust Guinness PRO12 Super Saturday shoot-out with the Champions Cup-chasing Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium.
Gilroy, a late withdrawal in the 30-6 win over Leinster last week due to a viral infection, returns to the left wing in place of the unfortunate Rory Scholes, who played so well but now finds himself excluded from the matchday squad.
With lock Peter Browne passing a fitness test on his injured ankle, it’s as strong a team as Ulster can turn out, with the exception of Tommy Bowe. Browne, who has come on in leaps and bounds since Christmas, is again packing down beside the busiest man in the PRO12, Franco van der Merwe.
The 33-year-old one-cap Springbok has played no fewer than 24 games this season, most for the full duration. He knows all too well the importance of this afternoon’s clash — his ninth start in succession — as Ulster need a bonus-point win to guarantee qualification for the play-offs, although a win would suffice if a hungry Munster see off Scarlets at Thomond Park.
“But we can’t worry about any other results or whether they’re good or bad,” said van der Merwe.
“I think having so many teams chasing things makes it more exciting. You want to be part of these massive games, you want to be in the team that played Leinster last weekend and, yes, you want to be in this big game with the Ospreys who are still chasing that sixth spot, so they will be battling hard as well.
“You want to be part of the team that makes the play-offs, otherwise what do you train so hard for?”
Van der Merwe was quick to attribute his impressive playing record to coach Les Kiss.
“If it wasn’t for Les managing me, I would probably have broken down by now.
“Still, hopefully we have a few games left and, at the moment, the body feels good and I’m going into this game feeling really fit.
“I’ve been really fortunate through my career and I think I’ve had one three-month injury before I came here and I got it just before I came to Ulster.
“This weekend has a bit of everything in it but luckily we’re in a position where we know exactly what we have to do and how many points we need. And that’s the only thing we can focus on. “
The Ospreys will be without wing Henne Dirksen and have named Sam Underhill in the back-row in place of Olly Cracknell. Wales lock Alun Wyn Jones is again missing as he continues to recover from a heel problem. Prop Nicky Smith starts but Adam Beard is out with a leg injury.
They game will likely be won by whoever has the wherewithal at half-back, with the in-form Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar plotting against Welsh duo Dan Biggar and live-wire scrum-half Rhys Webb.
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