Ulster v Sharks
Kingspan Stadium, kick-off 7.35pm
It comes down the final round of regulation season games to ease the congestion at the top of the URC table where five teams, including Friday’s combatants, are vying for the three available slots.
With Leinster already assured first place quite the scramble awaits to finalise the league's top four – one point separates Munster in second from fifth-placed Ulster – with its accompanying reward of an all-important home quarter-final.
Both Ulster and the Sharks can copperfasten a last-eight tie in front of their own supporters should they prevail on Friday evening which almost brings to this first meeting between the sides a sense of knockout rugby about it.
Ulster have not lost to a South African team at the Kingspan over the course of five previous visits being made to Belfast by either the Kings, Cheetahs or Lions but they have not had to deal with Southern Hemisphere opposition of this quality before.
The formidable Lukhanyo Am of the Sharks comes straight back into the team after returning from Japan to join other notables including Siya Kolisi, Bongi Mbonambi and Makazole Mapimpi in what has been a healthy run of victories for the third-placed squad who have former Ireland U20s coach Noel McNamara on their coaching ticket, though these have, admittedly, been back in Durban.
Ulster have been boosted by having both captain Iain Henderson and Stuart McCloskey declared fit after both left the action early last time out when the province dug out a critical win three weekends ago in Edinburgh.
Unsurprisingly Dan McFarland has made little alteration to his side for Friday, John Cooney, who benched in Scotland, swaps shirt numbers with Nathan Doak, as does Alan O'Connor with Kieran Treadwell.
Tom O'Toole returns from suspension to start, with Gareth Milasinovich heading to the bench.
With so much riding on the outcome in terms of it essentially being a winner takes all occasion, the Northern province will have to be pitch perfect to edge what is expected to be a closely contested affair likely to determine just how strong both sides can challenge for the URC title.
ULSTER: M Lowry, R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy, B Burns, J Cooney, A Warwick, R Herring, T O'Toole, A O'Connor, I Henderson (CAPT), Marcus Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. Replacements: J Andrew, E O'Sullivan, G Milasinovich, K Treadwell, Matty Rea, N Doak, S Moore, R Lyttle
SHARKS: A Fassi, W Kok, L Am, M Louw, M Mapimpi, C Bosch, J Hendrikse, O Nche, B Mbonambi, T du Toit (CAPT), R van Heerden, R Hugo, S Kolisi, H Venter, P Buthelezi. Replacements: K van Vuuren, N Mchunu, K Mchunu, H Andrews, J Labuschagne, S Notshe, G Williams, B Chamberlain
Referee: B Blain (SRU)