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Paddy Wallace makes welcome return to Ravenhill

Paddy Wallace

Paddy Wallace

Ulster’s most capped player, Paddy Wallace, will return to the senior side for Friday night’s RaboDirect PRO12 match with Zebre.

Having been out for nine months with an ACL injury, Wallace returned to play two weeks ago with the Ulster Ravens, captaining them on their visit to Ayr before getting a second run-out against the Scots again last week.

It was always the plan for Wallace with the target being a game with the senior side against the Italian visitors this week in the league.

Wallace will make his 189th competitive appearance for Ulster when he runs out to start against Zebre and there is certain to be a warm reception from the 14,000 sell-out crowd at the Belfast stadium.

The international centre looks likely to establish a new midfield partnership with Jared Payne, who will return to the number 13 shirt.

Ricky Andrew is likely to start at fullback and Ruan Pienaar and James McKinney forming the halfback partnership.

With John Afoa currently at home in New Zealand for Christmas - due back for the PRO12 home game against Munster in the New Year - and Declan Fitzpatrick ruled out this week with sickness Adam Macklin - another player just returning from an ACL injury - will get a call to the Ulster senior bench this week.

Ricky Lutton will get the start and will be keen to make the most of the opportunity.

It is likely the front row will be all changed from the back to back bonus-point wins over Benetton Treviso in the Heineken Cup.

Lutton will probably pack down with Niall Annett and Callum Black.

Lewis Stevenson looks likely to return after a short injury spell and will almost certainly get game time.

Roger Wilson may also recovered from a mild foot injury to be fit to play Zebre which could be important given it was unlikely Nick Williams, Chris Henry or Iain Henderson would be fit to return this week.

It was expected the games against Leinster and Munster either side of the New Year would be more realistic.

While Ulster were always expected to rotate players this weekend, head coach Mark Anscombe did not want complacency setting in after two big wins over Treviso in Europe.

They scraped past Zebre 11-19 away three weeks ago and the return leg offers a potential banana skin in the league.

“It’s another big block of fixtures,” said Anscombe.

“We knew at the start of the year that the Christmas period was going to be a defining part of the campaign for us.

“The thing is that we need to be really careful. We play four big teams that have been successful in Europe and you could be tempted to look ahead.

“All of a sudden Zebre slip into town, you underestimate them and they do a job on you.”

 

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