When Ulster coach Neil Doak named 33 players in his matchday panel for tonight’s friendly with Leinster (7.30pm), he said he was throwing down a challenge in his squad.
The opposition makes its first appearance since Leo Cullen was permanently installed as head coach, so with both sides reshaped because of World Cup calls some unfamiliar names get their chance to impress.
“Leinster in Belfast is always a big game, and as preparation for the Pro12 opener against the Ospreys in a fortnight we know there’ll be a physical battle to be won, and areas in defence and attack where we as a coaching team will learn a lot,” he said.
“We’ve had seven weeks of intense pre-season training, but nothing can really replicate match conditions, so we’re asking a lot of younger players, and those who’ve joined the club this year, to stake a claim.
“We have six key games in the Pro12 before the World Cup ends, so this panel will all get some important game time at the Kingspan this evening and in Edinburgh next weekend,” said Doak.
Darren Cave and Dan Tuohy are available and internationals Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall are in the starting three-quarter line, with Ian Humphreys and Paul Marshall a tested half-back unit. Rob Herring skippers the side, and Wiehann Herbst, Franco van der Merwe and Robbie Diack are also included in the pack.
But there’ll be huge interest for an anticipated 15,000 crowd when Doak introduces Irish-qualified Australian out-half Sam Windsor against the club he spent some time last year, and Sam Arnold and Jacob Stockdale are two midfielders who’ll want to catch the eye after a successful Junior World Cup.
Flanker Willie Faloon has returned from Connacht and will come off the bench, as will another product of the centre production line, Mark Best. Tuohy, Andrew Warwick, Bronson Ross, Conor Joyce, Ricky Lutton and Louis Ludik will also be called on for a game in which Doak has invested considerable importance.
“These are the guys who’ve put the work in for the last two months, and many of them we have high hopes for, but it’s in the heat of a real, robust encounter that you can find out about players and how they are physically and mentally,” he said.
Cullen has named former Irish flanker Kevin McLaughlin as his skipper until the World Cup contingent returns in November, nominating a player who mirrors his head coach’s own playing attributes.
“Kevin epitomises everything we want to see from a Leinster Rugby team going forward. He is selfless, puts team first and is always driving his own standards as well as the standards of those around him,” said Cullen.
J Owens; C Gilroy, D Cave, L Marshall, P Nelson; I Humphreys, P Marshall; R Murphy, R Herring (Capt.), W Herbst; P Browne, F Van der Merwe; C Ross, S Reidy, R Diack.
A Warwick, J Andrew, R Lutton, B Ross, A O’Connor, D Tuohy, C Joyce, F Taggart, W Faloon, S Mullholland, P Rowley, D Shanahan, S Windsor, J Stockdale, S McCloskey, S Arnold, L Ludik, M Best.
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