After a very successful couple of weeks in Europe, attention reverts to the Guinness PRO14 for Ulster in an equally important match against Benetton Rugby.
As expected, none of the players involved with Ireland midweek are selected for this match but there is still a good blend of experience and youth.
Marty Moore is the only player to retain his jersey in the front row and is joined by Andrew Warwick and Rob Herring. Alan O’Connor returns to captain the side alongside Kieran Treadwell in the second row while there’s a new trio in the back row of Ian Nagle, Nick Timoney and Greg Jones.
The 9, 10 and 12 positions remained unchanged with Dave Shanahan, Billy Burns and Stuart McCloskey occupying those jerseys respectively. James Hume is Ulster’s outside centre and deserves his chance after impressing in his previous performances. Robert Baloucoune will hope to continue his try scoring form on the right wing while Louis Ludik moves to the left wing and Michael Lowry comes in at fullback.
Ulster are currently in fifth position but only two points behind Benetton in third and Edinburgh in second. The Italians are currently sitting on seven domestic wins this season and just another four is required to equal last year’s best of 11.
They narrowly missed out on qualifying from their Challenge Cup draw, finishing with 20 points, just one shy of Northampton who are the eighth seeds. A one point loss to bottom side Agen proved costly and would have taken them through ahead of Northampton.
Nevertheless, Ulster edged them out in the reverse fixture 15-10 in Italy. Games between these two sides are usually attritional affairs, evidenced by the fact that Ulster made 152 tackles in the previous encounter – Against only four teams have Ulster made more tackles this season compared to last season when the same fixture saw Ulster make a staggering 201 tackles. Benetton always frustrate Ulster regardless of where the match is played.
The Italians have never won in Belfast and will be hoping to break that duck tomorrow evening. Players to watch out for include Monty Ioane and Iliesa Ratuva. Ioane is a decent try scorer from the wing and has recorded the most defenders beaten for the Italian outfit. Ratuva he leads Benetton’s statistics for offloads, metres made and clean breaks and has scored five tries this season. Expect Benetton to try and get the ball into their winger’s hands however, with Baloucoune and Ludik on either wing, I can’t see them getting much joy tomorrow night.
It’s important that Ulster remember they still have a job to do in the PRO14. A top three finish is not a foregone conclusion considering the strength of Benetton, Edinburgh and Scarlets who are all ahead of them. It’s easy to get carried away with making the quarter finals of the European Cup but we must remember that the league form dipped during Ulster’s run to the Heineken Cup final in 2012. The qualifying criteria were different then, so Ulster are at a real risk of failing to qualify for Europe next season if they don’t approach these fixtures in the correct manner.
Elsewhere in the conference, Edinburgh are in South Africa and face Southern Kings while Scarlets travel to the RDS to take on Leinster. You would expect Edinburgh to leave with five points but a Leinster win would see Ulster leap to third providing they beat Benetton tomorrow night.
The FRU predicts: I’m going for an Ulster win. I think the confidence from qualifying for Europe will seep through the squad and will record a victory that will take them above Benetton in the Conference B.
|Michael Lowry||15||Luca Sperandio|
|Robert Baloucoune||14||Ratuva Tavuyara|
|James Hume||13||Tommaso Iannone|
|Stuart McCloskey||12||Marco Zanon|
|Louis Ludik||11||Monty Ioane|
|Billy Burns||10||Ian McKinley|
|Dave Shanahan||9||Dewaldt Duvenage|
|Andrew Warwick||1||Nicola Quaglio|
|Rob Herring||2||Hame Faiva|
|Marty Moore||3||Marco Riccioni|
|Alan O’Connor||4||Irne Herbst|
|Kieran Treadwell||5||Federeico Ruzza|
|Ian Nagle||6||Marco Lazzaroni|
|Nick Timoney||7||Michele Lamaro|
|Greg Jones||8||Toa Halafihi|
|John Andrew||16||Tomas Baravalle|
|Wiehahn Herbst||17||Cherif Traore|
|Tom O’Toole||18||Simone Ferrari|
|Matthew Dalton||19||Marco Fuser|
|Clive Ross||20||Giovanni Pettinelli|
|Jonny Stewart||21||Marco Barbini|
|Darren Cave||22||Edoardo Gori|
|Rob Lyttle||23||Ignacio Brex|