For the first time since February 22nd, we can say that it is game week for Ulster Rugby.
The PRO14 resumes on Saturday albeit in a truncated format with derbies to conclude the regular season. Benetton v Zebre get us underway on Friday night with Ulster facing Connacht on Sunday afternoon at 4.30pm.
|Benetton v Zebre||Fri 21st August||7.00pm||Stadio Comunale di Monigo|
|Scarlets v Cardiff Blues||Sat 22nd August||3.00pm||Parc y Scarlets|
|Glasgow v Edinburgh||Sat 22nd August||5.15pm||Murrayfield|
|Leinster v Munster||Sat 22nd August||7.35pm||Aviva Stadium|
|Ospreys v Dragons||Sun 23rd August||2.15pm||Liberty Stadium|
|Connacht v Ulster||Sun 23rd August||4.30pm||Aviva Stadium|
While Ulster last took the field against Cheetahs in February, they were awarded two points after their away trip to Benetton was postponed due to the Coronavirus outbreak although this has left them requiring just a point to qualify for the final stage of the competition. Glasgow are behind Ulster in third, nine points adrift and with two matches against Edinburgh remaining, it’s a tall ask for Danny Wilson’s side. Wilson also joined during the enforced break, making contact time limited with his squad.
There’s no ‘semi final qualifier’ as with previous seasons with first and second in each conference progressing to the semi finals. Leinster are guaranteed top spot in Conference A.
Two injury updates in the last two weeks have ruled out a number of key players for Ulster.
Iain Henderson is the notable loss. Ulster’s lineout caller and Irish international second row will miss the rest of the 2019-2020 season and with an elongated autumn international window, it could be Christmas before we see the former Belfast Royal Academy player star in an Ulster jersey.
However Dan McFarland will be boosted by Sam Carter’s return from a dislocated shoulder injury picked up against Bath last November. The Australian is named on the bench with Alan O’Connor and Kieran Treadwell named to start in the second row.
Sean Reidy was ever present before lockdown – only Luke Marshall had played more minutes – and his injury leaves the door open for Nick Timoney or Matthew Rea to take the six jersey. Timoney brings pace to the game and often operates in the channel with attacking ball.
Matt Faddes’ recovery eases the angst around Will Addison’s injury, however Jacob Stockdale is named at 15 ahead of the Connacht game and the former Highlander has been left out of the match day squad.
Both new players Alby Mathewson and Ian Madigan are included among the replacements for Sunday. Mathewson is contracted to the province for one season after leaving Munster at the conclusion of the World Cup. Capped four times for the All Blacks, Mathewson made a good impression at Munster, filling in when Conor Murray was away on international duty. I think this is a very good short term signing for Ulster.
Madigan joins after three seasons with Bristol Bears. It’s clear that the Blackrock man wants to reignite his international career in which he amassed 30 caps before leaving Leinster in 2016. His versatility is a big positive, as he is able to fill in at centre and fullback as well as his favoured position of out half. Madigan joins a quality roster at ten, with Billy Burns leading the race for the jersey. The Blackrock man has a point to prove after finding game time hard to come by in his final season with the Bears and I expect him to grab matches by the collar when he features.
Crucially, EPCR announced this week that new signings will be able to compete for their new sides in any European knockout matches coming up. Mathewson will be eligible to feature for Ulster against Toulouse next month despite playing the opening two matches of the Champions Cup for Munster.
On the whole, McFarland has done a great job at Ulster but I think Ulster are in a very good position to challenge for the title. Getting the mindset right after five months of sitting in the sheds is important and I’m sure the players will not have experienced this before but with McFarland’s emphasis on sports psychology, they’re on course to getting this right.
No side in the tournament has momentum and sides have to get up to match speed extremely quickly, which is very hard to do without friendly matches. Only four matches are left in the PRO14 season so I’m not expecting the rugby to be fluid and stylish rather dig deep and fight for every inch even if it isn’t pretty. Anything can happen and I suspect Ulster, Edinburgh and possibly even Scarlets will fancy themselves to challenge Munster and Leinster for the title.