Robert Baloucoune returns but the absence of John Cooney, Iain Henderson and Stuart McCloskey in particular is a significant hurdle to overcome if Ulster are to maintain their unbeaten passage through the pool stages of the Heineken Champions Cup for a third successive weekend.
Dan McFarland’s side are well capable of winning but the tricky part is trying to identify which Ulster will turn up on the day; the one that beat Leinster at the RDS and Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Michelin or the one that found a way to lose matches to the Ospreys, Connacht and most recently Munster.
McCloskey’s contribution in muscling over the gain-line and facility to get the ball away in the tackle brings a different dimension to Ulster’s attacking patterns and isn’t replicated by anyone else in the ranks.
In recalling the province’s standout victories in recent seasons, he is more often than not front and centre.
Stewart Moore’s silky elegance, his footwork and distribution, offer a different set of skills to McCloskey. The key is to recognise that and not send Moore into cluttered cul-de-sacs to be physically punished.
James Hume, happily recovered from a hamstring strain sustained in the Munster match, is the in-form centre in Irish rugby and will prefer returning to the outside midfield role, having worn the 12 jersey at Thomond Park.
Ulster’s performance in defeat that day against a 14-man Munster was conspicuously lacking in game awareness, far too narrow in orientation, labouring in possession and in kicking the ball away carelessly.
Baloucoune’s return from injury will be an empty headline unless he is given the scope to bring his considerable talent to bear on the match. Putting aside the argument as to Michael Lowry’s best position, the priority from Ulster’s perspective is to get him on the ball where he can do the most damage with his footwork and acceleration.
Ethan McIlroy is another smashing prospect completing a three-quarter line with oodles of football ability. Cooney’s ability to read and run a European game will be missed. Nathan Doak will have absorbed some lessons from Limerick, particularly in relation to when and where to kick, and the importance of scanning the backfield before doing so.
A fine prospect, he will require a little guidance from time to time from those in his direct vicinity. Springbok number eight Duane Vermeulen and Irish international Billy Burns will be integral parts of that education process. Burns needs to be proactive and assured in driving the team. Ian Madigan is named in the match-day 23 for the first time this season.
Up front, in the absence of Jack McGrath, Andy Warwick is named at loosehead pop with Marty Moore returning on the other side of the frontrow; Tom O’Toole drops to the bench. Kieran Treadwell and Marcus Rea are promoted to the starting line-up, completing the seven alterations to the starting team that lost to Munster.
Northampton Saints director of rugby, Chris Boyd, currently serving a two -game ban for criticising a referee and who can have no involvement in a coaching capacity for the Ulster game, has retained just seven of the side that lost to the Irish province prior to Christmas. However there are only three changes to the side that walloped the Newcastle Falcons 44-8 in the English Premiership last weekend.
Boyd, who returns to New Zealand at the end of the season, gives a first European start to 19-year-old centre Tom Litchfield, Brandon Nansen plays his first game since November while Lions and England international Courtney Lawes returns to the team on the occasion of his 250th appearance for the Saints.
The home side have opted for a 6-2 split on the bench in terms of forwards and will be confident that if the pack can provide a platform then in players like Dan Biggar, former Springbok wing Courtnall Skosan and England fullback George Furbank they have players who can capitalise.
Ulster are without key players, the Saints have a history of underperforming at home in Europe; it’s a coin toss.
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S Moore, E McIlroy; B Burns, N Doak; A Warwick, R Herring, M Moore; A O’Connor (capt), K Treadwell; M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. Replacements: J Andrew, E O’Sullivan, T O’Toole, S Carter, G Jones, D Shanahan, I Madigan, B Moxham.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: G Furbank; C Skosan, T Litchfield, R Hutchinson, T Collins; D Biggar, A Mitchell; A Waller, S Matavesi, P Hill; D Ribbans, B Nansen; C Lawes, L Ludlam (capt), T Harrison. Replacements: J Fish, E Iyogun, E Painter, A Ratuniyarawa, A Coles, J Augustus, T James, T Freeman.
Referee: P Brousset (France)