WHILE it looks likely Ulster will have at least three of their frontline players back to start the competitive season in Belfast on Friday, August 31, on Friday night there is one final chance for those on the periphery to put their hands up when Newcastle Falcons are the visitors for the final pre-season friendly.
Irish internationals Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris and Tom Court, are all likely to come into the mix for next week’s visit of Glasgow Warriors in the RaboDirect PRO12 opener.
But it still means there are a considerable number of absent and Ulster head coach, Mark Anscombe, will be looking to see just how some combinations perform this evening ahead of the start of the campaign.
With Ruan Pienaar on duty with South Africa and Paul Marshall recovering from elbow surgery over the summer, it looks as though Michael Heaney will be thrust into the scrumhalf hot spot.
The former Ulster Academy player enjoyed a short stint at Doncaster last season before opting to return to his home Province.
Heaney produced one of the stand out performances in the 14-all draw with Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill last weekend.
And he also featured strongly in the 20-15 victory over Bayonne in France over a fortnight ago.
Heaney’s speedy and accurate delivery off rucks, mauls and scrums caught the eye last week, as well as his simplistic approach in getting the job done.
It looks as though Heaney and Paddy Jackson will head up the halfback partnership for the start of the competitive season, although Niall O’Connor also impressed in the No 10 shirt in the past fortnight.
Chris Farrell, Luke Marshall and Michael Allen, all young players with a handful of Ulster caps between them, have impressed Anscombe since his arrival to take over the head coach role at Ravenhill.
“When you consider we have Paddy Wallace, Nevin Spence and Darren Cave not featuring due to injury or other reasons, then you look to the young players coming through,” said Anscombe.
“Chris Farrell, Luke Marshall and Michael Allen have all put their hands up.
“And Stuart Olding also impressed me last week in the way he handled the last 15 minutes.
“He really straightened things up and asked a lot of questions of the Tigers, getting over the advantage line each time, so he is another one with flair which adds to the mix.”
Interestingly, there was no spot on tonight’s 27 man panel for the visit of Newcastle, but Allen, Farrell and Marshall all start.
Anscombe has again named a big panel and will give everyone a run-out just as he has in previous weeks.
But the new coach and his backroom panel will be looking at just who will make his first competitive matchday 23 next week.
On paper, Falcons should be the easier of the pre-season fixtures, but like Ulster they have been building over the past few weeks to the start of their competitive season next week in the English Championship and will be well organised.
For Anscombe there will be a number of key areas he will look to see improved upon, especially from last week.
“We created a lot of opportunities against Leicester, particularly in the first half, but we did not take many of them,” said Anscombe.
“Our break down, which was excellent against Bayonne, was a bit off last week and we have to make sure we are getting the numbers right to that area.
“When we did get that we recycled ball well and created numerous opportunities.”
Ulster: J Payne, M Allen, C Farrell, L Marshall, C Gilroy, P Jackson, M Heaney; C Black, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (c), L Stevenson, R Diack, M McComish, N Williams;
Replacements: N Annett, N Brady, R Lutton, J Afoa, A Macklin, N McComb, A Birch, S Doyle, B McIlroy, N O’Connor, P Nelson, C Cochrane.