There was mixed news for Ulster head coach, Neil Doak, on the injury front ahead of naming his team for Sunday’s Guinness PRO12 game against in Italy against Benetton Treviso.
While he was able to welcome back Ireland utility back Jared Payne – out injured since making his debut with Ireland at the start of November – South African lock, Franco van der Merwe was ruled out.
The big second row will miss his first game of the season with a chest infection.
It provides Hughes Insurance Academy player Alan O’Connor with a start.
That enforced change was one of two made by Doak, the other being the return as planned after a week’s rest of Louis Ludik at fullback.
Although Doak has admitted they have had to put huge demands on many of their players due to the extensive injury crisis they are experiencing, it came as no surprise yesterday when he named his strongest possible side for the game against the stuggling Italians.
Ulster have lost their last six away games in all competitions – four in the PRO12 – and there is an urgency for tide to be turned.
The PRO12 is apriority now for Ulster as they look not only to push towards the play-offs at the end of the season, but curcially secure a place in next season’s European Champions Cup, determined by fnishing positions in the PRO12.
Ulster will target the game on Sunday and then welcome the Italian side to Belfast in three weeks time and look to complete the double.
In between Ulster travel to Toulon and host Leicester in the Heineken Cup – there are almost certainly likely to be given opportunities to fit periphery players for the game in France next week.
Although Treviso are sitting second from bottom in the table, they have won their last two games (both against Zebre) and earlier in the season, Leinster could only muster a draw over there.
There are big pressures on Ulster to perform and there also expectations they will deliver but Doak was urging caution.
“Treviso have done something we have not this year and that was win in Zebre,” said Doak, as he recalled the shock defeat early in the season.
“They are a good side and are buoyed by having two wins on the trot. You can be sure they will be gunning for us when we get over there.”
Key for Ulster will be making sure their set piece remains the envy of every team in the league.
If the forwards can lay the platform once again then the opportunities will come – it is just a matter of then finding that clincial edge which has eluded them for the past couple of months.
Forwards coach, Allen Clarke said of the set piece: “We set exceptionally high standards in this club and our pack are proud of their set piece game.
“But we know there is much more to the game and there are other areas we have addressed and want to improve on – we expect to see that bear fruits this weekend.”
Benetton Treviso: J Hayward; A Esposito, M Campagnaro, L Morisi, A Pratichetti; S Christie, E Gori; M Zanusso, D Giazzon, R Harden; T Vallejos, C Van Zyl; M Barbini, A Zanni (capt), D Budd.
Replacements: A Anae, J Novak, D Rae, M Fuser, F Minto, M Swanepoel, J Ambrosini, A Lucchese.
Ulster: L Ludik; T Bowe, D Cave, S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, W Herbst; A O’Connor, D Tuohy; R Diack, C Ross, R Wilson.
Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, B Ross, L Stevenson, S Reidy, P Marshall, J Payne, P Nelson.