Ulster have opted to deploy World Cup winning prop, John Afoa on the loose side of the scrum for Friday night’s PRO12 game against Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill.
The tighthead specialist – arguably one of the top technicians in the front row – switches sides to make way for Ireland tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick, released by Ireland this week along with Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson.
Previously, Fitzpatrick’s return from National duty or injury usually saw him start and Afoa bench, but this time head coach, Mark Anscombe, has opted to unleash one of his potent weapons from the start.
There are few props who can play either side comfortably, but Afoa’s experience and scrumaging ability will certainly not be found wanting, and Ulster will be able to benefit from having one of their major ball carriers on the pitch from the start.
Anscombe, who is keen to finish this short four week block of League fixtures with a win after two losses in three outings previously, made a total of seven changes and three positional switches for the visit of the Italians tonight.
The front row is all changed with Afoa getting that first start on the loose side in an Ulster shirt, and Fitzpatrick starting and joined by Rob Herring who benched last week.
Lewis Stevenson and Dan Tuohy will start in the second row and the backrow sees Iain Henderson and Mike McComish both given starts.
Jackson gets the nod at outhalf – and will take the kicking duties – with Stuart Olding and Darren Cave forming the midfield partnership.
Andrew Trimble reverts to his usual winger’s position with Michael Allen, on the other flank, and Ricky Andrew at fullback, both retaining their places.
The notable inclusion on the bench is outhalf, Niall O’Connor, who was not even considered last week after Ulster opted to start Paddy Wallace in the No 10 shirt.
Ulster started the current mini block of fixtures nine points clear at the top of the PRO12, having previously been 11 in front. Two defeats – one to second placed Glasgow last week – has sent that advantage cut to just three points.
Coach Anscombe is not getting overly anxious, but accepted this week tonight’s game was absolutely crucial.
He told the News Letter: “We have to nail it. It is a game we have to win. A win keeps us
out in front and that is where we want to be.
“We have been there for a while and yet, we have been reeled in a bit now. The league is 22 games and you are going to have periods when you hit wee dips and the performance is not there.
“You get troughs like this and we just have to make sure we look after what we are doing. “I was disappointed last week – indeed the three weeks we have played. Having said that we can get critical at times and we have to remember we had 22 players missing last week and this week it is 19.”
Ulster have won eight of their nine previous encounters with Treviso, but they suffered a shock defeat to the Italians at Ravenhill last season (October 2011).