Ulster signalled its serious intent for tonight’s Guinness Pro12 semi-final at Glasgow Warriors by naming its strongest possible side.
There are 10 changes to the team which lost to the same opponents just a week ago, coach Neil Doak confident that the 32-10 defeat in the last ‘regular season’ game at Scotstoun will have no bearing on the outcome.
His counterpart Gregor Townsend, fresh from receiving the competition’s Coach of the Year award, in the main puts his trust in the side which finished top of the table and earned the right to a home semi-final.
Fraser Brown returns from injury at hooker for Glasgow , and Niko Matuwalu reverts to the wing, at the expense of Sean Lamont, with Henry Pyrgos partnering Finn Russell at half-back.
Back for Ulster comes a phalanx of internationals, including Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy in the three-quarters, and Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar resume at half-back.
As expected, injuries to prop Wiehann Herbst and lock Franco van der Merwe keep two key members of the side out, Ricky Lutton retaining his front-row spot after a season-long injury, while Lewis Stevenson has a chance to restate his case alongside Dan Tuohy at lock.
Rob Herring, having successfully seen off what appeared an injudicious citing for stamping, is on the bench to make way for skipper Rory Best.
“This is where we wanted to be,” said Ireland’s most-capped hooker, “in the play-offs, the prospect of a final at our own Kingspan Stadium. Last week means very little, the boys who came in did well for an hour so there is more than a little encouragement there, but we have some real firepower in the starting line-up, and on the bench.
“Glasgow is a fine side, you don’t top the league after 22 games without being outstanding, and they have individuals in Stuart Hogg, Peter Horne, Ali Kellock and Johnny Gray who are top-drawer.”
The two backlines are creative and free-scoring, but with Gilroy and Bowe on the wings, Ulster do have players in the form of their lives, while Payne and Cave will have pondered how to counter Horne and Richie Vernon in an intriguing midfield match-up.
Best’s return should stiffen the scrum, while Roger Wilson will be in the middle of an all-international back row completed by Chris Henry and the irrepressible Iain Henderson.
Kellock will want his last game at Scotstoun to be special before he retires, and he is such a folk hero at the club, his influence on a team undefeated at home this season is massive. Ulster will need to be at its most resolute in set-pieces, and can’t afford to lose concentration, especially in the opening exchanges.
“We know that no away side has ever won a play-off ‘semi’,” said Cave, “but those sorts of things are there to be broken, and I am very optimistic that we’ll still be playing competitive rugby, and in a final in Belfast, next weekend!”
George Clancy referees a contest which promises rich rewards for both sides, and Ulster has put a top priority this week in improving its discipline for what is traditionally a feisty encounter.
GLASGOW WARRIORS: Hogg; Seymour, Vernon, Horne, Matawalu; Russell, Pyrgos; Grant, Brown, de Klerk, Jonny Gray, Kellock (captain), Strauss, Fusaro, Ashe.
Replacements: MacArthur, Reid, Cusack, Nakarawa, Wilson, Weir, Lamont, DTH van der Merwe.
ULSTER: Ludik; Bowe, Payne, Cave, Gilroy, Jackson, Pienaar; Black, Best (capt), Lutton; Stevenson, Tuohy; Henderson, Henry, Wilson.
Replacements: Herring, Warwick, Ross, Diack, Reidy, Marshall, McCloskey, Allen.
Referee: G Clancy (IRFU)
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