IT says something when you are able to promote a World Cup winning prop from the bench to replace a late injury cry-off.
Yesterday, Ulster named their starting XV to face Connacht in tonight’s eagerly anticipated Irish derby clash at Ravenhill (kick-off 7.05) and among the five initial changes Irish international tighthead prop, Declan Fitzpatrick, was to start.
It meant John Afoa moved to the bench, as had been the intention in the last home game against Munster.
However, just like against Munster, Fitzpatrick was withdrawn for the Connacht game yesterday after picking up an injury in training.
It means there are now four changes to the Ulster side which won convincingly in Cardiff last week, with Rory Best coming into the front row for his first start of the season since last playing for his Province in the Heineken Cup final last May.
Captain, Johann Muller, also returns to the side and is joined in the pack by Irish international, Stephen Ferris.
The other change comes in the backline where Paddy Wallace makes his first start for Ulster – again having last played in the Heineken Cup final. He replaces the injured Michael Allen in the centre, and he starts at inside centre with Darren Cave moving to No 13.
Like Best, Wallace was on the Ireland tour to New Zealand in the summer, both picking up injuries which saw them delay their return to the Ulster shirts.
The decision to switch Fitzpatrick and Afoa initially, may have been part of the rotation policy employed by head coach, Mark Anscombe, but there may also have been a directive from the IRFU to start the Irish international.
The return of Tommy Bowe last week and Best, Muller, Ferris and Wallace this week, means Ulster are close to full strength, with only Roger Wilson the only player in the squad not to have had game time yet, still getting over a serious hamstring injury.
While the focus is all on tonight’s game against Connacht and Ulster looking to maintain their position as leaders of the PRO12 and preserve an unbeaten home record against the visitors which stands since November 1960, the return of the front line players in the past couple of weeks is timely with the Heineken Cup getting underway next week.
Tonight’s game has been billed as a titanic Irish clash, given that Ulster defeated Munster three weeks ago and Connacht travel to Belfast full of confidence as they humbled reigning European champions Leinster, 34-6, in Galway last week.
However, Ulster are firm favourites for the game on the back of four wins from four starts leaving them the only side unbeaten in the PRO12.
It may not come as a total surprise to assistant coach, Neil Doak, but he also admits it is pleasant one.
“I think we would taken that (four from four) especially when you look at who the opposition were going to be when the fixtures were announced.
“In the first couple of games we wanted to get a bit more fluidity into our game and that slightly cam to the fore last week against Cardiff. We were pretty clinical with the opportunities we got.
“However, Connacht had a good win last week over Leinster and will no doubt want to come up here and turn over another Irish Province particularly leading into Europe. Everyone involved this week knows it will be a tough assignment.”
Ulster have a strong bench to call on, although it is a harsh call on Nigel Brady not to move to there with Best coning in as hooker, Rob Herring preferred – although it may be a case of rotation.
Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy who were both at the recent Irish training camp are included on the bench.