Match Preview: Ulster Rugby vs. Zebre

Rob Herring

Rob Herring returns from injury to captain Ulster against Zebre

All right, time to take a step back.

Two consecutive defeats were not what the doctor ordered and in a flash we have found ourselves relegated from the summit of the PRO12 table to fourth place, from one point ahead of Connacht to languishing eight points behind them with Glasgow coming up hot on our heels having two games in hand. Things suddenly look a lot less rosy than they once did.

So this is probably the perfect time to be hosting Zebre at the Kingspan Stadium. We are desperately in need of a confidence-boosting win and this should provide a five points that we could really do with to keep us up at the top of the table and away from those below us. We have a run-in that should be kind enough to us to give us a Champions’ Cup spot, but better to be safe than sorry.

Would just the win be enough this week though? After four weeks where we have been significantly below par it would be rather refreshing to see us put in a performance that convinces us we haven’t lost our touch going into the latter stages of the season. Then again, any time you play Zebre it is easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve performed well.

Because let’s be honest, this is the point where I would usually point out the threats that the opposition possess. This week all I can do is say that Zebre probably have the element of surprise and that they pull out a remarkable performance that blows everyone away. Besides that, this should be an easy five points for us, especially given Connacht stuck seven tries past them two weeks ago.

So this should be a game where we really focus on getting back on the winning trail before our Six Nations break. It’s a shame that we’re not in a position to be giving a few of our younger players a run out in this game (because this would be the perfect opportunity) but there is undoubtedly a greater necessity in the short term than in the long term.

Things have been poor in the last few weeks, but if we can pick up the five points tomorrow night, and then use our weeks off to rest up for the Glasgow away game on Good Friday then we will be in a strong position to push for honours at the end of the season. It’s not beyond us by any stretch, and with the boost that Iain Henderson and Tommy Bowe should be back for the end of the season, there’s definitely an opportunity we could end our trophy drought.

It all starts with a win this weekend, and a performance to go with it.

URSC Info Point: Come and check out the URSC Info Point outside the Kukri Shop in the Memorial Stand before the game – you never know who you might meet there…

The stats

Despite losing twice in a row to the Scarlets and the Cardiff Blues, we haven’t lost three successive games in a PRO12 season since the 2011/12 season. We also haven’t lost in Belfast three times in one season since the 2009/10 season so we have two records to maintain this weekend.

By contrast Zebre are on a five game losing streak since their victory at Worcester in the European Challenge Cup on the 16th January. Zebre have only won once in the league outside of Italy – that came away to the Cardiff Blues back in September 2013.

We have met on six occasions with us winning five of those games, however our last encounter went the way of the Italians back in September 2014.

The teams

Les Kiss has made four changes to our side that lost to Cardiff last weekend with our front row completely changing. Captain Rob Herring has recovered from injury to start at hooker with Kyle McCall and Ricky Lutton coming in alongside him at prop. In the backs Sammy Arnold misses out due to injury so Stuart Olding moves to inside centre with Craig Gilroy shifting to full-back and Rory Scholes coming onto the wing.

Six changes for Zebre with an even split of three in the backs and three in the forwards. Giulio Bisegni and Edoardo Padovani are released from the Italy squad to start, they replace Tommaso Boni and Ian McKinley at outside centre and fly-half respectively. The other change in the back is at inside centre where Tommaso Castello replaces Matteo Pratichetti. Up front the two props change with Andrea de Marchi starting at loosehead in place of Bruno Postiglioni while Dario Chistolini is released from international duty to start ahead of Guillermo Roan on the tighthead side. The final change sees Emiliano Caffini come into the back row in place of Jacopo Sarto.

 

Ulster Rugby vs. Zebre

Friday 4th March, 19:35

Kingspan Stadium

Guinness PRO12 – Round 17

 

Live on BBC2 Northern Ireland

 

ULSTER RUGBY

15. Craig Gilroy, 14. Rory Scholes, 13. Luke Marshall, 12. Stuart Olding, 11. Jacob Stockdale, 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Ruan Pienaar; 1. Kyle McCall, 2. Rob Herring (capt.), 3. Ricky Lutton, 4. Pete Browne, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Robbie Diack, 7. Chris Henry, 8. Nick Williams.

Replacements: 16. John Andrew, 17. Callum Black, 18. Andy Warwick, 19. Roger Wilson, 20. Sean Reidy, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Sam Windsor, 23. Darren Cave.

 

ZEBRE

15. Mils Muliaina, 14. Giulio Toniolatti, 13. Giulio Bisegni, 12. Tommaso Castello, 11. Kayle van Zyl, 10. Edoardo Padovani, 9. Fabio Semenzato; 1. Andrea de Marchi, 2. Oliviero Fabiani, 3. Dario Chistolini, 4. Quintin Geldenhuys, 5. Marco Bortolami (capt.), 6. Emiliano Caffini, 7. Johan Meyer, 8. Federico Ruzza.

Replacements: 16. Emiliano Coria, 17. Guillermo Roan, 18. Pietro Ceccarelli, 19. Gideon Koegelenberg, 20. Filippo Cristiano, 21. Luke Burgess, 22. Ian McKinley, 23. Ulrich Beyers.

 

Referee: George Clancy (IRFU, 77th competition game)

Assistant Referees: Gary Conway, Paul Haycock (both IRFU)

Citing Commissioner: Eddie Wigglesworth (IRFU)

TMO: Kevin Beggs (IRFU)