Ireland U20 player Tom O’Toole is set to make is Ulster debut in tomorrow night’s crucial Guinness PRO14 match against Edinburgh. (KO 19:35)

Angus Curtis and Tommy O’Hagan will also make their debuts off the bench while Sean Reidy has recovered from his injury and is included in the match-day squad.

Ireland’s Grand Slam winning captain, Rory Best is welcomed back to the Ulster fold and will start in the front row alongside O’Toole and Andrew Warwick. Matthew Dalton and Iain Henderson form a new second row partnership with Alan O’Connor dropping to the bench after playing every minute of Ulster’s last six matches. Nick Timoney switches to flanker to accommodate Jean Deysel while Matthew Rea completes the back row.

John Cooney and Johnny McPhillips are Ulster’s half back pairing for the fifth game in a row while Stuart McCloskey starts at inside centre alongside Darren Cave. With Craig Gilroy ruled out, Louis Ludik starts on the right wing with Jacob Stockdale on the left. Charles Piutau remains as Ulster’s fullback.

It’s been a horrible start to 2018 at Kingspan Stadium with only three wins out of a possible eight. Off field matters have dominated the headlines over the past ten days and has left the mood among Ulster fans at rock bottom. With the prospect of Champions Cup rugby hinging on tomorrow night’s result and a tough run of games ahead, the atmosphere around the province would turn an optimist sour.

Nevertheless we see Ulster field a pack containing seven Irish players, answering calls to give the youth a chance. We’ve seen in the past how young players can come in and add another edge to Ulster, namely Nick Timoney, Matthew Rea and Johnny McPhillips.

Tom O’Toole comes into the fold after Ireland duty during the U20s Six Nations as well as sterling performances for Ulster A in the British and Irish Cup. Likewise, Rainey Old Boys’ prop, Tommy O’Hagan, has impressed in the B&I Cup and is highly rated among Ulster circles. Bryn Cunningham promised Ulster supporters at the Q&A in February that Angus Curtis will be integrated into the side during the closing rounds of the season and he is included as a centre/out half replacement.

Curtis was a stand out Irish performer during the final U20 Six Nations match against England. Adept at 10 or 12, he brought creativity to Ireland’s attack and another option outside Harry Byrne. Ulster are too reliant on Stuart McCloskey’s direct ball carrying and in recent weeks it has been largely ineffective, therefore meaning that Ulster have looked lost in attack. Hopefully Angus Curtis’ differing style of play will open up more avenues for Ulster’s outside backs.

I worry when looking at the opposition. A win for Edinburgh would guarantee a play off spot for the Scots’ and knock Ulster out of the competition. Despite Richard Cockerill claiming that Charles Piutau costs as much as the entire Edinburgh backline, I have no doubt that their backs have the same ability as Ulster’s.

We were given a glimpse of Blair Kinghorn during the Six Nations and while Edinburgh were able to defeat Ulster without him, it’s a sure bet that he will capitalize on any space afforded by poor kick and chase. Try scorer against Ulster at Kingspan, Jason Harries slips out of the 23 with Dougie Fife moving to the wing to accommodate Kinghorn.

The pack is where Edinburgh will target. Edinburgh barraged the Ulster defence in the second half of February’s match and while Ulster did front up for the most part, the away side had enough dominance to creep over the line. Ulster had to made 219 tackles that night which is the most they have had to make this season. I see no reason why Cockerill would change his tactics for this match.

The FRU predicts: I’m not expecting a victory, in fact I am expecting a comfortable Edinburgh win, however I am looking forward to seeing how Ulster’s latest raft of debutants acquit themselves on the senior stage. Edinburgh by 10 points.

Edinburgh Ulster
Blair Kinghorn 15 Charles Piutau
Dougie Fife 14 Louis Ludik
Mark Bennett 13 Darren Cave
Phil Burleigh 12 Stuart McCloskey
Duhan vd Merwe 11 Jacob Stockdale
Duncan Weir 10 Johnny McPhillips
Sam Hidalgo-Clyne 9 John Cooney
Jordan Lay 1 Andrew Warwick
Stuart McInally 2 Rory Best
Simon Berghan 3 Tom O’Toole
Ben Toolis 4 Matthew Dalton
Grant Gilchrist 5 Iain Henderson
Magnus Bradbury 6 Matthew Rea
Jamie Ritchie 7 Nick Timoney
Bill Mata 8 Jean Deysel
Neil Cochrane 16 Rob Herring
Rory Sutherland 17 Tom O’Hagan
WP Neil 18 Rodney Ah You
Lewis Carmichael 19 Alan O’Connor
Cornell du Preez 20 Sean Reidy
Sean Kennedy 21 David Shanahan
Jaco vd Walt 22 Angus Curtis
Chris Dean 23 Tommy Bowe

 

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