Newly-appointed Ireland skipper Rory Best will sit out the Champions Cup lunch-time date with Oyonnax as Ulster attempt to claim a bonus-point win at the Kingspan Stadium as they bid to keep their quarter-final hopes alive. Also absent are influential scrum-half Ruan Pienaar and flanker Chris Henry. Pienaar is sidelined with a virus while Henry is still suffering from the shoulder problem which ruled him out of Ireland’s Six Nations squad.
Best will be on the bench with his able deputy Rob Herring leading a side which shows four changes from the one that lost to Saracens last week. The uncapped Stuart McCloskey who was called up in Joe Schmidt’s 35-man panel, is given a well-earned rest with the fit-again Darren Cave joining Luke Marshall in midfield. Paul Marshall will again deputise for Pienaar. Wiehahn Herbst has failed to recover from a foot injury, so Richard Lutton wears the number three jersey. Nick Williams is also back in the starting line-out following a head injury in place of Roger Wilson.
Sean Reidy again deputises for Henry and the Ireland-qualified flanker is expecting a long wait over the weekend, to see if Ulster qualify as one of three best-placed pool runners-up.
“We’re just looking to play well and stick to our structures,” said the New Zealand-born forward whose grandfather came from Co. Kerry. “In the back of your mind you want that bonus point. The boys are in a good mind set at the moment,” explained Reidy whose grandfather Rod Ketels, won five All Blacks caps in the 1980s.
One thing Reidy hopes will be rectified are Ulster’s set-pieces which will be the crux of this afternoon’s attempt for a five-pointer.
“We pride ourselves on the set piece and our stats have been fairly good all year, especially the lineout so we were a bit disappointed last week,” said Reidy as Ulster’s stats showed that they won 67 % of their own scrums and measly 60% line-out ball on their own throw. “We have had a look over where we went wrong.”
“I do like the physical side game especially around the break down. I enjoy trying to get over the ball as much as a I can. The last few games it is something me and assistant coach Joe Barakat have worked on quite a bit and I’m looking to improve that part of my game. They expect the flankers to get in and over the ball to slow it up and get a few turnovers here and there and I was in the right spot at the right time so I was happy with that against Saracens last week”
The French side cannot qualify and as they are sitting second bottom in the Top 14 and face leaders Racing 92 next week, their mind could be elsewhere as they have rested a number of their big names. But even if they get those precious five points, Ulster will have to wait until late this afternoon to see if they have been pipped for a qualifying place by one of six other teams hovering around the five pools. Meanwhile the province confirmed the capture of Irish-qualified England U20 second row, Kieran Treadwell. He will move to Kingspan Stadium on a two-year deal this summer.
The talented Harlequins youngster is eligible to play for Ireland through his mother and has represented the country at underage level, having earned four caps for the U18s in 2013.
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