Lions star Iain Henderson will lead Ulster for the first time when a so far stingless Wasps side fly into Belfast for the opening Champions Cup Pool 1 clash at the Kingspan Stadium this evening.
The 25-year-old, who made the first of his 32 Ireland appearances five years ago against South Africa, is expected to add an edge with his rampaging leadership to an Ulster pack that has been lacking in venom of late.
Ulster head coach Les Kiss has made three changes to the side that scraped past Connacht last week with Louis Ludik returning to the right wing for Tommy Bowe while Robbie Diack partners Henderson at lock with Sean Reidy replacing the injured Chris Hendry.
Wasps, who were comprehensively defeated by Saracens last week but have won the last five meetings between the sides, travel with a much-boosted starting line-up with the ballast of captain Joe Launchbury and Nathan Hughes in the back five with Jake Cooper-Woolley and Tom Cruse returning to the front row.
Speedster Christian Wade is back on the right wing with playmaker Jimmy Gopperth and the lively Dan Robson forming a dangerous half-back partnership.
Wasps director of rugby Dia Young knows what to expect in Belfast, but hopes the current performances — Wasps sit 10th in the Premiership — will be put to one side.
“The Kingspan Stadium is a great venue to play rugby, as I always found during my time coaching Cardiff, and our squad really enjoyed the atmosphere there in our pre-season game (which Wasps won). It’s always ram-packed and the supporters really get behind the team.
“We’ve parked the Premiership to one side for now and we’re really looking forward to getting stuck into a new tournament. We’ve dusted ourselves down and it’s a good time for us to switch to a new competition with the slate wiped clean.
“We go to Belfast with a smile on our faces, ready to enjoy the experience as that’s when we play our best rugby. If we can produce the standard of rugby we know we’re capable of, there’s no reason why we can’t get a result.”
Ulster’s Wallaby out-half Christian Lealiifano is making his debut in the premier European club competition.
“I’ve been excited for the challenge ahead, but for me day-to-day it’s all about trying to improve and get our game going to where we want it to go,” said the 29-year-old.
“Hopefully we can keep improving each day but certainly, there’s excitement in all the talk about how big the European games are, and how amazing the atmosphere will be.
“It’s definitely something we see in the southern hemisphere. But that wasn’t the draw that got me over here. I think the draw for me here is just I’m having fun playing rugby again and I’m enjoying being in this environment,” said Lealiifano, who is in remission from leukaemia.
“When Kurtley (Beale) was there he was playing fantastic rugby for them, and I’ve been speaking to Charlie (Piutau) about his time with them and how he enjoyed it.
They’ve definitely got some quality backs and some quality individuals there that are big threats. I think their set-piece is definitely something we need to try and nullify,” explained Lealiifano, who has adapted well to his adopted city.
“I’m really enjoying it,” he said enthusiastically. “This organisation, and my team-mates, have been fantastic, their partners have been fantastic in reaching out to my partner,” said Lealiifano who hopes to leave a legacy when his short-term contract expiress,
“I’m only here for a short time so it’s about adding growth and developing some of the younger guys around here so they can step up and be confident in themselves.
"It’s about improving their ability to be able to step up into these competitions.
"It’s been helping Pete Nelson, Brett Herron, Johnny McPhillips, the young five-eighths in this team, to be confident in what they’re doing and build an attitude of trying to improve each day.
“If I can give them the right tools to do that then Ulster Rugby will be in a good position.”
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