Gilroy benched for crucial Saints tie
In-form Ulster winger Craig Gilroy must be content with a place on the bench as head coach Mark Anscombe made wholesale changes for Friday’s crucial Heineken Cup meeting with Northampton Saints in Franklins Gardens (8pm).
Eight of the changes are personnel as a number of players who were rested for the trip to Scarlets on Sunday return to the fold while Andrew Trimble switches to the right flank in the one positional swap.
Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace and Jared Payne have been included at scrumhalf, inside centre and fullback respectively.
Tommy Bowe, who was on bench duty last weekend, will line out on the right wing for his 50th Heineken Cup appearance.
Paddy Jackson (flyhalf) and Darren Cave (outside centre) retain their places in the backline.
Up front, Ireland internationals Rory Best and Tom Court replace Rob Herring and Callum Black in the front row alongside John Afoa. while captain Johann Muller is joined in the second row by regular partner Dan Tuohy.
Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Roger Wilson will form an all action back row while Ulster also enjoy the luxury of having the impact of Nick Williams off the bench.
Ricky Lutton could make his Heineken Cup debut if he takes to the field at any time during Friday's game. The 26-year-old development prop has made one previous appearance - as a substitute in the RaboDirect PRO12 win over Edinburgh last month.
Nigel Brady and Robbie Diack, along with Black, Lutton and Williams will be the forward options off the bench.
Paul Marshall, Luke Marshall and Gilroy, who all featured for the Ireland XV in their fixture with Fiji last month, will offer great quality as replacement backs.
Ulster have no new injury concerns; they are missing Stephen Ferris, who underwent surgery on his ankle yesterday, Declan Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson, and long term absentees Chris Farrell and Paddy McAllister.
Anscombe admitted he had some tough choices to make when picking his starting XV for the first of the back-to-back clashes with the Saints.
"There were some difficult decisions but that's what you want,” he said. “The guys who have missed out this week have been outstandingly positive and that's very pleasing."
The New Zealander is expecting his forwards to be tested by their Northampton counterparts, particularly in the set piece.
"They have a strong pack and they build their game around that. They don't hide from that fact and they're confident in it.
“Their set piece is very strong and we've got to be excited about meeting that front on. We've got to conquer them up front if we're going to compete because you've got to have front foot ball.
“The tight five have to step up and show their qualities, but I'm confident in them, they've all played international rugby."
Having played each other in the pool stages in 2002/03 and again in the quarter final of the 2010/11 edition, this will be the fourth European encounter between the two sides. All three previous meetings have been won by the team playing at home.
Both teams are showing good domestic form. Northampton currently occupy third spot in the Premiership standings, just two behind frontrunners Harlequins, while Ulster have a nine point cushion at the top of the PRO12.
With two wins from two in Europe, the Belfast based side also have a three point gap between themselves and their English opponents.
Ulster (v. Northampton Saints): J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (c), D Tuohy, I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson.
Replacements: N Brady, C Black, R Lutton, R Diack, N Williams, P Marshall, L Marshall, C Gilroy.
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