Heineken Champions Cup: Ulster v Northampton, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 8pm – Live on BT Sport
A magnificent victory over Clermont Auvergne last weekend, the return of their captain Iain Henderson and the cornerstone of the scrum, Marty Moore, should guarantee plenty of pep in the Ulster step as they look to take a large stride forward in their quest for a place in the knock-out stage of the Heineken Champions Cup.
Niggling away in the background though is a little performance volatility in Ulster’s last four games across two competitions. Abject in defeat to Connacht, they were excellent in beating Leinster at the RDS, flatlined against the Ospreys but then shook off that torpor with an eloquent, statement win last weekend.
No one, outside of the Northampton Saints, will be hoping that the topsy-turvy trend continues on Friday night in Belfast. Henderson’s return from a hamstring injury, quite apart from his talent, brings composure and leadership, while Moore’s work-rate and scrum chops are important to the set piece and breakdown.
The Ulster supporters will also be keen to officially welcome Springbok World Cup-winner Duane Vermeulen to Belfast. He made his debut last weekend in France and is now looking forward to an atmosphere about which he's heard a great deal as he explained: "It was a quick introduction, I had one training session and then we went off to Clermont.
“It was a great team effort and it kind of felt like I slotted in nicely. It was nice to get a good welcome from the coaches from the team. This is my first full training week [so] it’s good to get to know the players and the people behind this fantastic team.
“It’s a place where I can learn something but also add some value. Hopefully this is the start of a good journey.”
The South African number eight explained that he had been on the cusp of going to Japan when Bryn Cunningham persuaded him to choose Ulster.
The Clermont match was a good start. He admitted: “It is great to see the professionalism in the squad from the youngsters all the way to the senior guys. It feels like a great team environment and something that I am looking to be a part of. I want to share a bit of myself, bring a bit of experience that I have picked up over the years.”
The shoulder injury sustained by Robert Baloucoune means that Craig Gilroy comes in on the right wing. Tom O'Toole and Kieran Treadwell drop to the bench, while Sean Reidy is out of the match 23 as head coach Dan McFarland once again opts for just two backs, Nathan Doak and Stewart Moore, in the replacements.
Northampton have made four changes to their pack following a hugely disappointing 45-14 home defeat to Racing 92, one of which heralds the return of the in-form Courtney Lawes at blindside flanker. Tom Wood, Mikey Haywood and Alex Waller are also promoted to the starting line-up.
Dan Biggar is injured so George Furbank switches from fullback to outhalf while Ahsee Tuala and Ollie Sleightholme make the starting team. Former Ulster prop Conor Carey is on the bench for the Saints.
There is an expectation that the Ulster pack will provide the ammunition to allow the backline to fire. James Hume has been outstanding of late and caused huge problems for Clermont last week but he's assisted by the work of those inside and out.
John Cooney continues to set a high performance benchmark, while Billy Burns and Stuart McCloskey and especially Michael Lowry and Ethan McIlroy demonstrated their attacking prowess last week.
Northampton will be hurting after last week’s disappointment but if Ulster can replicate the integrity of last week’s effort and application then it shouldn’t matter.
ULSTER: M Lowry: C Gilroy, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, M Moore; A O'Connor, I Henderson (capt); M Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: J Andrew, J McGrath, T O'Toole, K Treadwell, S Carter, N Doak, S Moore, G Jones.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: A Tuala; O Sleightholme, M Proctor, F Dingwall, C Skosan; G Furbank, A Mitchell; A Waller, M Haywood, E Painter; D Ribbans, A Ratuniyarawa; C Lawes, L Ludlam (capt), T Wood.
Replacements: J Fish, E Iyogun, C Carey, A Coles, J Augustus, T James, J Grayson, R Hutchinson.
Referee: A Piardi (Italy).