In the absence of Stuart McCloskey, Luke Marshall and Will Addison, Stewart Moore will make his first start for the senior side in the opening match of the new season against Benetton tonight.
Michael Lowry will make his first start at out half for Ulster while there will be debuts for Gareth Milasinovich and the highly rated David McCann off the bench.
Excluding injuries, it’s a full strength side for Ulster. Jack McGrath, Rob Herring and Marty Moore make up the front row with captain Iain Henderson in the second row alongside Wallaby Sam Carter. There’s no Jordi Murphy so Sean Reidy moves to the openside with Matthew Rea coming in at six. Marcell Coetzee is back after missing the Champions Cup quarter final.
John Cooney partners Lowry at half back with James Hume starting with Moore in the centre. Jacob Stockdale returns to fullback with Craig Gilroy and Rob Lyttle on the right and left wing respectively. No sign of Ian Madigan as Bill Johnston is the outhalf replacement on the bench.
COVID has effectively replaced pre-season with a two week off period commonly seen during the internationals but it also gives Ulster a chance to right a few wrongs in the matches after lockdown. Crucially, we’re back at Kingspan rather than the Aviva Stadium so Ulster can enjoy home comforts.
Supporters are also back, but only those who signed up for the #TogetherUlster scheme promoted throughout lockdown. 300 pairs of tickets were drew from a ballot on Wednesday meaning they’ll have to noise for the rest of us at home.
Ulster get their season underway with a home tie against Benetton. The Italian side have threatened to push on and be competitive in the league on various occasions but their loss to Zebre in the first round after the enforced break resigned Kieran Crowley’s men to Challenge Cup rugby this season.
Tussles with the Italian side are rarely straightforward for Ulster with a score separating the sides on the last four occasions where the Belfast side has won. Benetton were unlucky to come away with only a draw when the sides last met at Kingspan, with a Nigel Owens penalty try saving Ulster’s blushes.
Benetton have named a wiley side for tomorrow’s match. Sebastian Negri and Braam Steyn start in the back row and they’ll front up against Ulster. Both players will spoil Ulster ball and try to slow down time at the breakdown allowing the wider defence to get organised.
Paolo Garbisi makes only his second appearance for Benetton, having made his debut against Zebre after lockdown. The out half was in Italy’s U20 panel for this year’s Six Nations and is highly rated within Italian circles. The experience Dewaldt Duvenage is inside him at scrum half and captains the side.
Monty Ioane, Ratuva Tavuyara and Jayden Hayward form a very good back three for the visitors. Although prop Hame Faiva was their top try scorer in the league last season, Ioane and Ratuva know their way to the line. Both are quick and physically strong but lack a decent boot. Hayward on the other hand, is a very good tactical kicker. If Ulster can isolate either of the wingers from Hayward, they stand a good chance of making good yards up the pitch by kicking to them, provided they’ve an organised chase in place.
Unfortunately Ulster are in the same pool as holders Leinster. The Dublin side are head and shoulders ahead of everyone else in the league so it will be difficult for Ulster to secure top spot in the pool. That would require a level of consistency that I haven’t seen in this side for quite a few years.
As mentioned in my end of season review, until Ulster are able to consistently win on the road, they’ll struggle to match Leinster. That’s for next week however, when Ulster travel to Swansea to take on the Ospreys.
Second place is achievable. Glasgow Warriors have hardly strengthened this year and their talisman Leone Nakarawa is back in Fiji for the first few games of the season. While they are still a very good side, there are a few weaknesses, particularly if you can match them up front. I think Ulster have enough to hold them off for second place.
With Stewart Moore and David McCann both involved in the opening match I think this could be a feature for this season due to the extended international period. Both impressed in the A team’s win against Leinster at the RDS last week and will get numerous appearances throughout the season. Tom Stewart, Callum Reid and Hayden Hyde are highly rated and I think we’ll see them make their debuts as the campaign goes on.
From a rugby viewpoint, it’s hard to see how this season will pan out. COVID is still at the forefront with the Derry going back into a localised lockdown yesterday. There’s a real possibility this season could be impacted further especially as teams originate from four jurisdictions. We already have a situation of the South African side(s) having to wait until 2021 before being able to compete in the PRO14 again. How the administrators will incorporate a side starting half way through the season into the league is anyone’s guess.
The FRU predicts: An Ulster win, but Benetton to never be more than a score away from their hosts. Both sides have some big names playing so I’m reluctant to say that it will be a drab affair that we’ve become accustomed to seeing.
|Jacob Stockdale||15||Jayden Hayward|
|Craig Gilroy||14||Ratuva Tavuyara|
|James Hume||13||Ignacio Brex|
|Stewart Moore||12||Marco Zanon|
|Rob Lyttle||11||Monty Ioane|
|Michael Lowry||10||Paolo Garbisi|
|John Cooney||9||Dewaldt Duvenage|
|Jack McGrath||1||Cherif Traore|
|Rob Herring||2||Hame Faiva|
|Marty Moore||3||Marco Riccioni|
|Sam Carter||4||Marco Lazzaroni|
|Iain Henderson||5||Federico Ruzza|
|Matthew Rea||6||Sebastian Negri|
|Sean Reidy||7||Abraham Steyn|
|Marcell Coetzee||8||Toa Halafihi|
|Adam McBurney||16||Gianmarco Lucchesi|
|Eric O’Sullivan||17||Nicola Quaglio|
|Gareth Milasinovich||18||Simone Ferrari|
|David O’Connor||19||Niccolo Cannone|
|David McCann||20||Eli Snyman|
|Alby Mathewson||21||Giovanni Pettinelly|
|Bill Johnston||22||Callum Braley|
|Louis Ludik||23||Edoardo Padovani|