Ulster have no room for slip-ups against Zebre
Tommy Bowe returns to Les Kiss’s side in the absence of Andrew Trimble
Craig Gilroy (left) and Tommy Bowe come in to the Ulster side for their Pro12 game against Zebre in Parma. Photograph: Stephen Hamilton/Inpho.
Zebre v Ulster, Stadio Lanfranchi, Parma, Satuirday, 4pm Irish time (BBC 1)
Ulster, like so many teams on this taut run-in for a home semi-final play-off spot and European Champions Cup qualification, return to must-win territory in Parma this afternoon in what amounts to a proverbial banana skin.
Zebre rank as the least in-form side in the Guinness Pro12, having lost eight league games in a row since their Christmas double over Treviso.
Their form on their travels has been particularly woeful, failing to score a solitary point of any kind in their last four away games, while conceding 24 tries and 160 points. Yet at home they have remained more competitive, picking up their solitary bonus point in their last seven defeats in that try-fest with Connacht.
Zebre’s only previous victory over an Irish province came against Ulster here in September of last season. They led Glasgow by 14-7 at half-time last weekend at home, albeit before then being blown away by the Scots in the second-half as the Warriors ran in seven tries in total. That was the 11th offensive bonus point Zebre have leaked in their 15 defeats to date.
As if to underline how every point is vital, Ulster went into the weekend one point behind the Scarlets in the last of the playoff spots, one point ahead of Munster in the last of the Champions Cup spots and just two clear of Edinburgh in seventh placed. Yet with the rest of the top seven clashing, this weekend represents a gilt-edged opportunity to gain points on at least three and quite possibly more of their rivals in the top half of the table.
Tommy Bowe will play his first match of the season for Ulster after returning from a knee injury sustained on World Cup duty with Ireland in place of Andrew Trimble, who was unable to travel due to an illness.
Further demonstrating the depth at the disposal of Les Kiss, Stuart Olding comes into the backline at inside centre in place of Stuart McCloskey, who is unavailable due to a shoulder injury, in what is a strong selection despite the continuing absence of their main source of go-forward, Nick Williams.
Zebre have recalled tight-head Pietro Ceccarelli and flanker Jean Cook while Franco van der Merwe will make his 50th appearance for Ulster, who also have plenty of impact on the bench to press home their advantage in the last 20 or 30 minutes.
ZEBRE: K van Zyl; D Berryman, G Bisegni, M Pratichetti, L Sarto; C Canna, G Palazzani; A Lovotti, O Fabiani, P Ceccarelli, Q Geldenhuys (capt), V Bernabò, J Cook, F Ruzza, G Koegelenberg. Replacements: B Postiglioni, A de Marchi, D Chistolini, M Bortolami, E Caffini, L Burgess, U Beyers, T Boni.
ULSTER: J Payne; T Bowe, L Marshall, S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), RLutton, P Browne, F van der Merwe, I Henderson, S Reidy, R Wilson. Replacements: R Herring, K McCall, A Warwick, R Diack, C Henry, P Marshall, D Cave, R Scholes.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales).
Last five meetings: (2013/’14) Zebre 11 Ulster 19, Ulster 13 Zebre 6. (2014/’15) Ulster 32 Zebre 13, Zebre 13 Ulster 6. (2015/’16) Ulster 32 Zebre 0.
Five-game formguide: Zebre – L L L L L. Ulster – L L W L W.
Leading try scorers: Zebre – Dries van Schalkwyk 6. Ulster – Craig Gilroy 7, Nick Williams 5.
Leading points scorers: Zebre – Carlo Canna 51. Ulster – Paddy Jackson 91.
Forecast: Ulster to win with a bonus point.