Ulster have made seven changes to their starting XV for the sold-out Guinness PRO12 fixture against Connacht at Kingspan Stadium on Boxing Day (kick off 6.45pm).
In the absence of Rory Best, who is rested along with Tommy Bowe, Roger Wilson will captain the side in what will be his 300th professional match.
There is a new half back pairing with Paddy Jackson returning in place of Ian Humphreys at number 10 and Paul Marshall deputising for Ruan Pienaar, who has failed to recover from a knee injury picked up against Ospreys at the weekend. Wingers Craig Gilroy and Peter Nelson are the other new faces in the backline, replacing Bowe and Michael Allen respectively.
Rob Herring starts at hooker in place of Best and is joined in an all-new front row by props Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst. The remainder of the pack is unchanged from the game at Liberty Stadium, with Dan Tuohy and Franco van der Merwe continuing their partnership at lock and Robbie Diack, Clive Ross and Wilson again combining in the back row.
Hughes Insurance Ulster Academy hooker John Andrew is named on the bench and will earn his second cap if called upon, while Michael Heaney is the only other addition to the match day squad from last week.
Wilson, who has played club rugby for Ulster and Northampton, and has also represented Ireland, Ireland A, the Barbarians and a World XV invitational side, is pleased to have reached 300 professional appearances: “It’s a nice milestone to reach,” he said. “I suppose it just reminds you of how fortunate you are to be playing the sport that you love for so long, especially when you look at players like Stephen Ferris who have had to retire early. I’ve stayed relatively injury free and durability has probably been one of my strong points throughout my career.”
But the 33 year-old is not getting carried away and knows Connacht will arrive at Kingspan Stadium looking to spoil the party. “It will be very tough, especially with us having won only one of our last four. Connacht seem to be improving year on year and they’re picking up scalps regularly in Europe now as well as in the league. We’ve been disappointing over the past month but we’ve got to make sure we’re firing on all cylinders on Friday night because we will have to be at our best to get the win.”
The game will be televised on BBC2 NI. There are no tickets available but you can CLICK HERE to buy tickets for the upcoming games against Leicester Tigers (24th January), Treviso (13th February) and Scarlets (27th February).
Ulster team & replacements to play Connacht:
(15-9): L Ludik; C Gilroy, D Cave, L Marshall, P Nelson, P Jackson, P Marshall; (1-8): C Black, R Herring, W Herbst, D Tuohy, F vd Merwe, R Diack, C Ross, R Wilson; Replacements (16-23): J Andrew, A Warwick, D Fitzpatrick, A O’Connor, S Reidy, M Heaney, I Humphreys, S Olding.