The Ulster game against Aironi is pretty hard to get excited about. Aironi are a fairly brutal team, pinned to the bottom of the Pro 12 table; it’s all so different from last year, when they were pinned to the bottom of the Magners League table.
However, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has made two calls in selection that bring up some talking points: Ruan Pienaar has been introduced at scrum half for Paul Marshall, and Paddy McAllister starts at loosehead instead of Tom Court.
Neither substitution is injury-enforced, and even allowing for the fact that Aironi are a weak team, Ulster badly need the win and the points if they are to progress to the knock-out stages. It’s not a time for experimentation.
Ruan Pienaar can play either scrum-half or outhalf, and has done so for South Africa. Allied to his natural athletic abilities, it’s the sort of versatility that saw him voted as Magners League Player of the Year last season. He played most of his rugby in the No9 jersey in that campaign, but in his absence this season, Paul Marshall has really stepped up to the plate with some cracking performances.
In contrast, Ian Humphreys has blown more hot and cold than ever. That’s not a synonym for rubbish; he’s had great moments, such as the late try against Clermont and the subsequent touchline conversion, but in the absence of Paddy Wallace he has failed to get a talented young backline firing. Craig Gilroy , Nevin Spence , Darren Cave  and Andrew Trimble  have the potential to be a much more dangerous outfit than they’ve looked in the recent past. The Mole thinks that Humphreys should have been the man to face the axe – not just because Marshall has been playing better at scrum half than iHumph has been playing at out half, but also because the back line needs something to make it spark.
The emergence of Ian Madigan at Leinster and Ian Keatley’s move to Munster – as well as the fact that the World Cup is in the very recent past – means that there’s not as much of an onus on Ulster to persist with an Irish-born player in the No10 jersey. If O’Gara or Sexton had missed RWC11 due to injury, Humphreys would have been on call. That’s not a big issue anymore.
The other change is a more positive one. The Mole has been fulsome in his praise of Paddy McAllister before, and is delighted to see him get a chance to start at this level. Tom Court was brought in to the Irish set-up to do a job, and he did one. However, he has neither the age profile nor the skills to be a long term solution at prop for Ireland, while McAllister does. He’s a long way behind the current Irish incumbent Cian Healy, but he’s a young  prop of prototypical size: 185cm [6’1″] and 117kg [18st 6lbs]. He’s got a great background in underage rugby and brings a lot of aggression and oomph to the pitch.