The loss of inspirational skipper Rory Best for tomorrow afternoon’s PRO14 shoot-out against the Ospreys at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off, 3.05pm) will hit Ulster hard, particularly with Ireland lock Iain Henderson also sidelined.
There’s more than pride at store, of course, as the winner will be in next season’s Champions Cup, while the loser could quite literally be sent to Siberia if they get an unfavourable draw in the Challenge Cup.
Best pulled up abruptly during training last Tuesday with a hamstring tear. Everyone knew then that he was never going to be fit to face a Welsh side who have most of their big guns fully locked and loaded — Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate and Justin Tuperic are just three of the internationals ready to overturn an 8-0 defeat in Belfast four weeks ago.
Rob Herring comes in at hooker to skipper an Ulster side that sees Robbie Diack, Callum Black and Charles Piutau aim to pay a fond farewell to Ulster before moving on.
Piutau, who was Ulster’s biggest-ever marquee signing back in 2016 and is now heading to newly-promoted Premiership side Bristol, has failed to sparkle this season.
Normally a try-scoring machine, he has only managed three this campaign, the last back at the start of April.
“Hopefully I can give something special. I just want to put on my best performance for my team-mates, who have become family members now,” said the former All Black, who relishes big games.
“It’s these sort of games you want to be part of. Special moments, exciting challenge, not only for myself, but for the team. There is a lot at stake and it would be good to see the club playing in European top level rugby, and keep the young guys coming through to experience that.”
ULSTER: C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney; C Black, R Herring (capt), R Kane, A O’Connor, K Treadwell, R Diack, S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, T O’Toole, J Regan, C Henry, D Shanahan, D Cave, C Gilroy.
OSPREYS: S Davies; J Hassler, A Beck, O Watkin, H Dirksen; D Biggar, T Habberfield; N Smith, S Otten, D Arhip, B Davies, A Wyn Jones (capt), D Lydiate, J Tipuric, J King.
Replacements: I Phillips, R Jones, M Fia, A Beard, S Cross, M Aubrey, C Allen, J Hook.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR).
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