The teams are out for Ulster’s crunch Guinness PRO14 semi final match against Edinburgh.
Ulster are missing Will Addison, Luke Marshall and Iain Henderson to injury but are boosted by the inlcusions of Jacob Stockdale, Alan O’Connor, Stuart McCloskey and Jordi Murphy who were doubts after the Leinster match.
Jack McGrath and Marty Moore are named on the bench with youth being given the nod at prop. Eric O’Sullivan and Tom O’Toole start alongside Rob Herring in the front row. Alan O’Connor went off early last week but is named to start alongside Sam Carter in the second row. Matthew Rea resumes at six with Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee completing the back row trio.
Billy Burns returns to the starting line up alongside John Cooney at half back. McCloskey’s inclusion is a huge boost and he is joined by James Hume in the centres. There’s no room for Craig Gilroy or Matt Faddes on the wings with Rob Lyttle and Louis Ludik occupying those spots. Jacob Stockdale starts at 15 for the third match in a row.
With O’Sullivan and O’Toole named as props, we’ll see Ulster play off nine from the ruck with the receiving player popping to someone in more space. O’Sullivan is a great exponent of this play and Ulster have had some success with it in the past.
Richard Cockerill’s Edinburgh side have fared better than Ulster since the restart of the competition recording a win in their opening match against Glasgow Warriors. Although they were flat and lost out on Friday, Cockerill had made some changes with this week in mind.
Despite the former Leicester Tigers’ man being very complimentary towards McFarland’s Ulster in the build up to this match and insisting the Irish side are favourites, I cannot share his opinion. I agree with him that there is pressure on Ulster to win especially comparing the budgets between the sides and that they’ve not reached a PRO14 final since 2013 – a travesty considering the quality of players in Belfast over the last number of seasons.
Cockerill took the reigns in the Scottish capital at the start of the 2017-18 season with Edinburgh finishing in ninth position, above only Benetton Treviso, Newport Gwent Dragons and Zebre. His first season saw him pip Ulster to the final knockout spot in the newly restructured PRO14 while last season saw a European run which controversially ended with a quarter loss to Munster at Murrayfield.
Blair Kinghorn, Duhan van der Merwe, Jaco van der Walt and Darcy Graham grab the headlines in the back line while up front Bill Mata is an exciting number eight along with scavengers Hamish Watson and Magnus Bradbury in the back row and Stuart McInally, Rory Sutherland and Grant Gilchrist in the front five. They have Pierre Schoeman coming off the bench who is a great scrummager and useful in the loose.
This represents a great chance for Ulster to book their first final appearance since 2013. They don’t have the mental baggage playing against Edinburgh that they would have against Munster or Leinster and have a decent record against sides that Cockerill has coached.
Last season Ulster went to Murrayfield needing a win to wrap up second place. The ball carriers made good yards and plus one pop passes kept the defence on the back foot. While Ulster can be dealt with by keeping Marcell Coetzee and Stuart McCloskey quiet, the same can be said for Edinburgh and Bill Mata. Much like Leone Nakarawa, who has had a lot of success playing against Ulster for Glasgow Warriors and Racing 92, restricting his ability to offload will prevent Edinburgh making bursts and recycling the ball to their clinical back line.
Discipline has to be a lot better this week. While the penalty count only reached ten against Leinster – quite low compared to other teams – a lot of them were preventable such as the slap down which allowed Ross Byrne to put 13 points between the sides early on. It’s not possible for Ulster to continously allow sides an early lead through stupid mistakes if they want to challenge for silverware. Edinburgh have a great set piece with Grant Gilchrist and Ben Toolis in the lineout while Hamish Watson and Magnus Bradbury will slow down Ulster ball. The immensely talented Jamie Richie only makes the bench.
Will ball in hand, I’m not sure there’s a more destructive ball carrier in the league than Duhan van der Merwe who has notched seven scores in the league this season. His ability to break the tackle without losing any speed is terrifying as well as keeping the ball free to offload. I’m expecting him to drift off his wing for start plays running through the ten/twelve channel or else finding the soft shoulder of James Hume at outside centre.
The FRU predicts: I’ve Edinburgh as favourites for this match but would be slightly more confident than if they were up against Munster or Leinster. However I think Ulster will come up short against a well drilled Edinburgh side.
|Blair Kinghorn||15||Jacob Stockdale|
|Darcy Graham||14||Louis Ludik|
|Mark Bennett||13||James Hume|
|Chris Dean||12||Stuart McCloskey|
|Duhan van der Merwe||11||Rob Lyttle|
|Jaco van der Walt||10||Billy Burns|
|Nic Groom||9||John Cooney|
|Rory Sutherland||1||Eric O’Sullivan|
|Stuart McInally||2||Rob Herring|
|WP Nel||3||Tom O’Toole|
|Ben Toolis||4||Alan O’Connor|
|Grant Gilchrist||5||Sam Carter|
|Magnus Bradbury||6||Matthew Rea|
|Hamish Watson||7||Jordi Murphy|
|Viliame Mata||8||Marcell Coetzee|
|Mike Willemse||16||John Andrew|
|Pierre Schoeman||17||Jack McGrath|
|Simon Berghan||18||Marty Moore|
|Andrew Davidson||19||Kieran Treadwell|
|Jamie Richie||20||Sean Reidy|
|Charlie Shiel||21||Alby Mathewson|
|Nathan Chamberlain||22||Ian Madigan|
|George Taylor||23||Michael Lowry|