Ulster begin a trio of games against Italian opposition when they travel to face Zebre at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi on Sunday afternoon in the final game of Round 16.
The Irish province have played a game less than most of their rivals fighting for a spot in the top four and welcome Benetton Treviso to Kingspan next week before their re-arranged Round 9 game against Zebre.
What’s at stake?
A try bonus point success for Ulster would help them in the race to catch Scarlets who currently sit fourth and take on Guinness PRO12 leaders Munster on Friday night.
Ulster need a win as they cannot afford to slip behind Glasgow Warriors who are breathing down their necks, just two points behind them, and pushing for a place in the top four.
Meanwhile success for Zebre could push them above their Italian rivals Treviso and off the bottom of the Guinness PRO12 table.
Ulster Team News: Tommy Bowe will make his 150th appearance for Ulster when he starts on the wing while Ireland international Jared Payne is on the bench after recovering from a kidney issue.
Payne has been out of action since picking up the knock during the November internationals and has academy product David Busby, in line for his first cap, for company on the bench.
Les Kiss makes nine changes in total to the team that beat Glasgow Warriors last weekend including a brand-new front five which sees Rob Herring captain from hooker.
Herring packs down with Andy Warwick and Wiehahn Herbst in the front row with Robbie Diack and Alan O’Connor named as the starting locks.
Zebre Team News: Flanker Johan Meyer and centre Tommaso Castello return to the matchday 23 after missing last weekend’s game against the Scarlets.
Castello is named amongst the replacements while three Italy internationals are permitted to join their club teammates by head coach Conor O’Shea.
Tommaso Boni starts at outside centre for Zebre with Frederico Ruzza at No.8 and Joshua Furno with Castello on the bench.
Talking points: This is the first time these two sides have met this season after their Round 9 fixture in Belfast was postponed due to a frozen pitch back in November.
And Rob Herring doesn’t think Ulster have any room for complacency as the number of games remaining in the Guinness PRO12 season continues to tick away.
“As a squad, we’ve been honest about what we need to do to win the PRO12 title. I can’t see us being complacent any more this year,” he said.
“We can’t afford to be complacent any more this season and if we want to reach the top four and achieve silverware then we don’t have many more chances.
“We need to put in good performances to come away with the win otherwise the season is going to be over for us.”
“It’s always nice to have it (a top-four finish) in your own hands but now that we don’t have that control it actually drives you that little bit extra.”
Key battle: Luke Marshall v Tommaso Boni
Marshall, 25, and Boni, 24, are both at the beginnings of their international careers and have just 11 caps for Ireland and Italy between them.
Sunday’s match up will give both the chance to try and impress their national coaches and force their way into the reckoning for later in this year’s RBS 6 Nations or for the summer Tours.
With the Zebre pack sure to make the forwards battle a real arm-wrestle, these two exciting young centres could be key to unlocking the oppositions defence and creating those all-important try-scoring opportunities.
Key stat: Zebre Rugby have not won since beating Edinburgh Rugby at BT Murrayfield in October, whilst their only home win in Parma since Christmas 2015 was over Newport Gwent Dragons in May.
Did you know? Ulster have won their last two Guinness PRO12 fixtures, both at home to Scottish opponents, Edinburgh Rugby and Glasgow Warriors, whilst their only away victory since September came on a trip to Cardiff Blues in round 10.
Top points scorer: 66 – Carlo Canna
Top try scorer: 4 – Dries van Schalkwyk
Top points scorer: 65 – Paddy Jackson
Top try scorer: 6 – Jacob Stockdale
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 8, Zebre won 1, Ulster won 7.
At Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, 1.30pm local time (12.30 UK & Ireland) Live on Sky Sports and Eurosport Italy
Referee: Sean Gallagher (IRFU, 3rdcompetition game)
Assistant Referees: Eddie Hogan-O’Connell (IRFU), Elia Rizzo (FIR)
Citing Commissioner: Roberto Carra (FIR)
TMO: Charles Samson (SRU)
Jacob Stockdale scored his seventh Guinness PRO12 try of the season as Ulster edged closer to the top four with a 40-17 victory over Zebre at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
Ulster had leapfrogged Glasgow Warriors into fifth place with a powerful 37-17 win at Kingspan Stadium and they started in much the same vein on Italian soil.
Chris Henry went over from a driving maul before the exhilarating pair of Stockdale and Charles Piutau sent Ruan Pienaar flying over for a 14-0 lead in as many minutes.
But Guglielmo Palazzani stepped up to the plate with a converted try and a penalty to take Zebre within four points at the turn, though Stuart Olding’s try five minutes into the second period swung momentum back in Ulster’s favour.
Mattia Bellini pulled another try back but after Jared Payne, who damaged his kidney in Ireland’s 27-24 win over Australia in the autumn, made his return just after the hour Robbie Diack barged over thanks to some more Piutau magic.
Academy player David Busby scored a sixth right at the death as Ulster moved within five of fourth-place Scarlets with a game in hand.
Henry powered over from a maul after seven minutes as Ulster made the perfect start at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, with Pienaar picking up where he left off against Glasgow with an immaculate touchline conversion.
Stockdale and Piutau combined seven minutes later to send Pienaar over for another fine try, Stockdale finding the All Black with a lovely offload to send him haring away and shifting the ball to the Springbok scrum-half to cross.
Pienaar was again on-target from the tee, but Zebre found the perfect reply through Palazzani, the 25-year-old crossing three minutes later before converting his own try to pull them in touch at 14-7.
And it was Palazzani who struck again from the tee just before half-time to pull the hosts right back into contention at 14-10.
Ulster though, repeated their lightning start of the first period, Olding barrelling over within five minutes and Pienaar adding the extras as Kiss’ men accelerated.
Stockdale – who is Ulster’s top try-scorer following his two-try performance against Glasgow – opted for a plum line off Pienaar to bust over, with the Springbok converting for a 28-10 lead.
Undimmed by Ulster’s two-try salvo, Zebre hit back with superbly taken Bellini try, with Palazzani adding the extras to take edge them closer at 28-17.
Piutau’s sensational footwork set up Diack for a fifth Ulster try with ten minutes, Pienaar continuing his exemplary kicking form with a fifth successful conversion before Busby added further gloss late on.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €30 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie. Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/fi
24 Feb 2017