Emerging Ireland star Stuart Olding returns to the Ulster line-up for the first time in 10 months when he wears the number 12 jersey against Benetton Treviso at Stadio Monigo this afternoon.
The 23-year-old utility back, who made his Ireland debut back in June 2013 against the US Eagles alongside this afternoon’s midfield colleague Darren Cave, returns following a second major knee operation which immediately followed elbow surgery in 2015.
Head coach Less Kiss has made seven changes in total at the start of six consecutive games that will determine who does what in the Guinness Pro12.
With Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Jackson on Ireland squad duty, Louis Ludik returns at full-back, Rory Scholes is on the right wing and Ian Humphreys at half-back alongside Paul Marshall who again deputises for the virus-hit Ruan Pienaar.
Up front, Callum Black deputises for Kyle McCall and with Nick Williams aggravating a groin during training, Roger Wilson starts in the back-row alongside Clive Ross and the ever-improving Sean Reidy.
But it is the return of Olding that will catch the eye. Happy at either 12, 10 or 15, the play-maker says he is much leaner, quicker and stronger since the time he returned from his first major knee reconstruction.
“The first time I returned from the first serious injury at the start of last season, I had bulked up and it wasn’t all good weight either,” said Olding whose other Ireland appearance was in 2014 against Georgia in Dublin.
“I’m nearly five kilos lighter than I was back then. Through the GPS tracking system, it shows that I’m now a lot faster, I’m certainly stronger and feel a lot lighter on my feet too. My agility is really good and I was really excited to get back out again last week for the Ulster A side,” said Olding, who came from the same Belfast Royal Academy as Iain Henderson. He brushes off the challenge of returning for a third time after surgery.
“You just have to put it in the back of your mind or get rid of it from your thoughts altogether.”
On today’s opponents, Olding believes Ulster have to be wary of Treviso, despite their lowly standing.
“The next six games in the Pro12 are going to be vital and they are really must-win games too. We need to get as near to 30 points as possible from those six games.
“Every time I’ve played Treviso we’ve managed to get a few scores up but then they’ve come back to either draw or we win by a point or two. They are not to be taken lightly, particularly at home.”
TREVISO: J Hayward; L Nitoglia, E Bacchin, A Sgarbi (capt), T Iannone; S Christie, A Lucchese; Alberto De Marchi, R Santamaria, S Ferrari; F Palmer, T Palmer; Andrea De Marchi, M Lazzaroni, R Barbieri.
Replacements: L Bigi, C Traore, F Filippetto, J Montauriol, A Steyn, J Ambrosini, S Ragusi, A Pratichetti.
ULSTER: L Ludik; R Scholes, D Cave, S Olding, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring (capt), R Lutton; A O’Connor, F van der Merwe; C Ross, S Reidy, R Wilson.
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, B Ross, P Browne, L Dow, D Shanahan, L Marshall, J Stockdale.
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