By Micil Glennon
Last year’s Heineken Cup beaten finalists Ulster have won 13 from 13 this season and show no signs of slowing down.
Last week’s 25-6 thumping of Northampton was a real benchmark of where Ulster are at.
Five points from an away trip to the third-placed team in the Aviva Premiership, full of seasoned internationals, tells its own story.
Within that story there are plenty of central characters, none more so than winger Andrew Trimble who was outstanding last week, reacting magnificently to Craig Gilroy mania.
The 28-year-old will make his 50th Heineken Cup appearance against Northampton.
In fact the entire backline was on fire last week and that only happens when the pack are controlling the tempo, which they were, Chris Henry, in particular, showing up strongly.
That feat was all the more impressive given the absence of Stephen Ferris in the back row.
Tonight Ulster will be without captain Johann Muller who broke his arm last weekend, the second serious injury for the South African this season having missed eight weeks at the start with a thumb injury.
New Ireland cap Iain Henderson steps into the second row and Nick Williams goes on the flank.
If Northampton didn’t have the heart for a Friday evening home fixture they will find it extremely difficult to lift themselves for a dirty night in Ravenhill against a home side team firing on all cylinders.
Captain Dylan Hartley, who said the Saints were “shown up” in the reverse fixture, has admitted a striking charge on Rory Best and will miss the game.
Phil Dowson captains the side in place of the ever-unfortunate Hartley, while Courtney Lawes is dropped.
Elsewhere, half-backs Lee Dickson and Stephen Meyler start ahead of Martin Roberts and Ryan Lambe.
Coach Jim Mallinder says that his players “massively underperformed” and they are determined to “put things right” but, of course, he has to say that in the build-up to such games.
While it won’t be easy for the northern province, the Saints sit third in the pool, having being beaten twice.
Getting out of Belfast with some pride and a clean bill of health may be their priority.
Prediction: Ulster 20-7 Northampton
Ulster: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, I Henderson, D Tuohy, N Williams, C Henry (capt), R Wilson.
Replacements: N Brady, C Black, R Lutton, N McComb, R Diack, P Marshall, L Marshall, C Gilroy.
Northampton: B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, T May, J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, M Haywood, P Doran-Jones; S Manoa, C Clark, T Wood, P Dowson (capt), G-J van Velze
Replacements: R McMillan, A Waller, B Mujati, M Sorensen, C Lawes, M Roberts, R Lamb, L Burrell.