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Missing grunt and more talking points before Ulster's Pro12 semi in Glasgow

This has the makings to be the best Pro12 play-off ever.

South African absentees

THOUGH ULSTER HAVE reinforced their starting line-up with the return of first team stalwarts like Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy and Dan Tuohy, they will be without the considerable presence of Wiehahn Herbst and Franco van der Merwe.

Without their two big signings of last summer, both primary set-pieces are weakened. Van der Merwe in particular has been a bedrock of Ulster’s play-off push this season and was deservedly named in the Pro12 Dream Team last week.

Francois Van Der Merwe Franco van der Merwe protecting his ankle in yesterday's training session. Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

In his stead Lewis Stevenson continues as lock with head coach Neil Doak preferring to keep Iain Henderson in the back row to maximise the impact he can have on the game.

On the road

The historical data just doesn’t back up an Ulster victory tonight. The Pro12 semi-finals are yet to produce an away winner in 10 attempts, Ulster haven’t managed a league win in Glasgow since Warriors moved from Firhill and – in all competitions – Neil Doak’s side have managed just four wins in 14 away trips this season.

However, by resting so many leading lights on last week’s trip to Glasgow, Doak has ploughed all his team’s resources and focus on to this one fixture. If they can prove successful, this fixture will likely be remembered as the competition’s best play-off fixture. If they can’t, then Ulster will be just another statistic on the carnage of Pro12 teams on the road.

Iain Henderson v Josh Strauss

On their day, both of these blindsides are veritable forces of nature that can wreak untold havoc in the contact area with handling skills to make Sonny Bill Williams blush.

Josh Strauss takes the ball in the line out 19/10/2012 Strauss beats Henderson to a line-out in 2012. Source: Russell Cheyne

Strauss’ importance has been reduced somewhat of late as he has been moved out of the number eight jersey to allow Adam Ashe bed in. However, that serves to take pressure and opposition focus off him and Glasgow’s back row looks perfectly balanced as a result.

Ulster have also been able to find a cohesion in that unit after the return of Chris Henry. However, it’s the brilliant 23-year-old that is capable of turning back foot to front foot and front foot to points.

That’s entertainment

The semi-finalists are well-matched: two proud clubs with a clear project well underway, and they have the attacking prowess to prove it. With a clean ball, both sets of 15 will be willing and able to open up in attack.

View of the Ulster team Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

They take different approaches on their route to the try-line, of course. Generally speaking, Glasgow like to show off their offloading ability, generating quick ball long before forming a ruck so that their trail-runners can punch straight through defences before they’re set. Ulster employ fewer offloads and launch incisive back-line moves, the brilliant soft hands of Paddy Jackson seeking out the speed and power of Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy.

Matawalu moved

It’s testament to Townsend that nobody is surprised by a bit of tinkering with the Warriors team at this stage. This time last year the world assumed Stuart Hogg was on the way out because he wasn’t in the team. Just a few weeks ago, Finn Russell was omitted despite an incredible season. For tonight’s game, the Glasgow coach will once again play the club’s player of the year out of the position where he can be most influential.

Henry Pyrgos starts at scrum-half with Niko Matawalu moved out to the wing. He is no stranger to the role of course having been selected there for the biggest of Glasgow’s games in the second half of the season.

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Niko Matawalu is presented with the Man of the Match award Matawalu celebrates a man of the match award earlier this season. Source: Russell Cheyne/INPHO

While Matawalu’s talents are plain to see, Pyrgos gives Townsend the added security blanket of predictability and control from half-back. When the pressure is on and the ground gets raucous on the biggest days, Matawalu has been prone to moments of madness when the tension and frustration gets to him.

He does bring that x-factor to other areas, but Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar will most certainly be looking for opportunities to exploit him when putting boot to ball.

Whether from deep, in the first two-thirds of the field, or under a cross-field kick when Bowe’s athleticism would give him a huge advantage in a one-on-one aerial contest.

Glasgow Warriors

15. Stuart Hogg
14. Tommy Seymour
13. Richie Vernon
12. Peter Horne
11. Niko Matawalu
10. Finn Russell
9. Henry Pyrgos

1. Ryan Grant
2. Fraser Brown
3. Rossouw de Klerk
4. Jonny Gray
5. Al Kellock (capt)
6. Josh Strauss
7. Chris Fusaro
8. Adam Ashe

Replacements:

16. Pat MacArthur
17. Gordon Reid
18. Mike Cusack
19. Leone Nakarawa
20. Ryan Wilson
21. Duncan Weir
22. Sean Lamont
23. DTH van der Merwe

Ulster

15. Louis Ludik
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Jared Payne
12. Darren Cave
11. Craig Gilroy
10. Paddy Jackson
9. Ruan Pienaar

1. Callum Black
2. Rory Best (capt)
3. Ricky Lutton
4. Lewis Stevenson
5. Dan Tuohy
6. Iain Henderson
7. Chris Henry
8. Roger Wilson

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Andrew Warwick
18. Bronson Ross
19. Robbie Diack
20. Sean Reidy
21. Paul Marshall
22. Stuart McCloskey
23. Michael Allen

Referee: George Clancy [IRFU]

TV: TG4, BBC, SkySports [19.45]

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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