Internationals Stuart Olding, Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave have been released by Ireland and will boost Ulster’s hopes of dethroning Pro12 table-toppers Ospreys at the Kingspan Stadium this evening.
Ulster’s Springbok lock Franco van der Merwe will also tog out for his 12th successive game against the Welsh side who have found success at Ravenhill a rare commodity.
The visitors, although unbeaten in the league with seven wins out of seven, have lost their two outings in the LV Cup, when their Welsh internationals have been unavailable.
Ulster head coach Neil Doak, however, can call on seven internationals for a game that could cement Ulster’s place in the top four.
The young and talented Olding starts again at full-back while Cave joins Stuart McCloskey in midfield. Gilroy is on the left wing. Paddy Jackson links with Paul Marshall at half-back in a useful back line.
Up front, Rob Herring continues to deputise for Rory Best, while Roger Wilson returns from a shoulder injury to lead the side and packs down at number eight. Lewis Stevenson partners Franco Van der Merve in the engine room with the Springbok knowing the 10-game segment is crucial for Ulster.
“I’m used to playing everything, being from South Africa. In Super Rugby, I played every single game, especially the last few years, but hats off to the management here — they have been really looking after me,” said South African Van der Merve.
“But now this is a big 10 weeks and there are some very important games coming up.
“I’ve never played the Ospreys before but they are top of the log and haven’t lost a game so that speaks for itself but it’s home advantage and the Kingspan gets fired up for Friday night games,” explained Van der Merwe.
Ulster have won four of their last five clashes with the Welsh side, although in all five games the losing side achieved a bonus point, with the highest match tally being only 30 points. Ospreys last win in Belfast was last season when they posted a 16-12 victory.
ULSTER: S Olding; L Ludik, D Cave, S McCloskey C Gilroy, P Jackson, P Marshall; (1-8): C Black, R Herring, W Herbst, L Stevenson, F vd Merwe, C Ross, S Reidy, R Wilson, capt.
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, D Fitzpatrick, A O’Connor, N Williams, M Heaney, I Humphreys, P Nelson.
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