Ulster kick off this year’s European adventure with an away trip to Bath – their first away fixture in gameweek one since Bordeaux in 2016.
As expected, Dan McFarland has named a strong panel with Will Addison returning to the starting team after picking up an injury against Zebre while there’s no room for Matt Faddes or Craig Gilroy in the 23.
Jack McGrath, Rob Herring and Marty Moore make up an unchanged front row partnership. McGrath and Moore held their own in the scrum against Munster last week and with Iain Henderson and Sam Carter in the engine room behind them, that’s a full strength Ulster front five.
McFarland has opted for Matty Rea at blindside flanker rather than the workhorse Sean Reidy who starts on the bench. Rea joins Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee in the back row. Reidy coming off the bench is a good option, particularly with his tackling stats as he’ll be able to empty the tank in the final 20 minutes if Ulster have a narrow lead.
The backline picks itself. John Cooney and Billy Burns are the halfbacks while Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall start in the centres. Marshall has been one of Ulster’s best players so far this season and his inclusion is richly deserved. Jacob Stockdale, Rob Lyttle and Addison are named in the back three.
With Todd Blackadder departing for Toshiba Brave Lupus in the off season, Bath legend Stuart Hooper has taken the reigns at The Rec. They’ve endured a mixed start to the season, falling to a heavy defeat to a quality Bristol side at Ashton Gate in round one of the Guinness Premiership. However they bounced back with a hard fought win against Exeter Chiefs.
They currently sit in ninth in the league however I expect them to climb up the table as the season progresses, especially now that Joe Cokanasiga, Sam Underhill, Francois Louw and Anthony Watson have returned from World Cup duty. Underhill is the only one to start tomorrow, but Bath still possess a lethal backline. Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Joseph form the midfield while Ruaridh McConnochie and Samesa Rokoduguni are the back three.
Zach Mercer’s battle with Coetzee promises to be a belter with both players destructive ball carriers as well as being exceptional over the ball. Whoever has the upper hand in this battle will surely give the momentum to their side and have the opposition on the back foot. At only 22 years of age, Mercer is touted as the English number eight for the 2023 World Cup.
The battle between the Burns brothers has acquired quite a few column inches today. No doubt family bragging rights will be on the line, but both have a great opportunity to guide their sides into a positive start. Freddie Burns starts at fullback for his side, unable to usurp Rhys Priestland in the outhalf slot while Billy’s playing time at ten has dramatically increased since his move to Ulster. He’s started the season very well and I certainly don’t think there is a lot between the pair.
Ulster have previous for letting poachers disrupt ball and a back row of Rea, Murphy and Coetzee will need to match Bath’s trio of Mercer, Sam Underhill and Mike Williams. Underhill’s presence worries me massively, especially considering he, along with Tom Curry, dismantled a world class Kiwi back row in the World Cup semi final.
Despite having a 100% record against tomorrow’s opposition in European competitions, Ulster will have their work cut out to maintain that winning run.
The FRU predicts: On paper there’s not much between these sides. Ulster are more than capable of coming away with a win tomorrow especially with their recent record away against English sides in the competition. At the risk of jinxing it, I’m tipping a nail biter with Billy Burns clinching it in the last ten minutes.
|Freddie Burns||15||Will Addison|
|Semesa Rokoduguni||14||Rob Lyttle|
|Jonathan Joseph||13||Luke Marshall|
|Jamie Roberts||12||Stuart McCloskey|
|Ruaridh McConnochie||11||Jacob Stockdale|
|Rhys Priestland||10||Billy Burns|
|Will Chudley||9||John Cooney|
|Ben Obano||1||Jack McGrath|
|Tom Dunn||2||Rob Herring|
|Will Stuart||3||Marty Moore|
|Josh McNally||4||Iain Henderson|
|Charlie Ewels||5||Sam Carter|
|Mike Williams||6||Matty Rea|
|Sam Underhill||7||Jordi Murphy|
|Zach Mercer||8||Marcell Coetzee|
|Jack Walker||16||Adam McBurney|
|Lewis Boyce||17||Eric O’Sullivan|
|Christian Judge||18||Tom O’Toole|
|Elliott Stooke||19||Alan O’Connor|
|Josh Bayliss||20||Sean Reidy|
|Chris Cook||21||Dave Shanahan|
|Max Wright||22||Angus Curtis|
|Gabe Hamer-Webb||23||Louis Ludik|