Amid all the citings and furore of the Rugby World Cup, the Guinness PRO14 returns this weekend and Dan McFarland has named a strong side for the opening match against Ospreys.

Summer signings Jack McGrath, Sam Carter and Matt Faddes are all in line to make their debuts while Craig Gilroy makes a return to the side after 11 months out. Rob Herring captains the side in Iain Henderson’s absence.

Herring starts in the front row along with McGrath and Tom O’Toole while Carter is joined by Kieran Treadwell in the second row. Matthew Rea, Jordi Murphy and Sean Reidy form a very talented back Ulster back row. Despite only losing Iain Henderson to international duty, Ulster are without Marcell Coetzee, Marty Moore and Nick Timoney due to injury. It’s still a strong pack and one that I would tip them to have the upper hand over the Ospreys.

John Cooney and Billy Burns resume as half back partners and are joined by James Hume and Luke Marshall in the centres. Hume impressed when he was given the chance last season, especially in the home match against Munster while Marshall will be hoping to put an injury-hit season behind him and hit the ground running. Rob Lyttle and Craig Gilroy start on the wings while Faddes debuts at fullback.

It’s great to see Craig Gilroy back in the side after such a long lay off. His last game came against Racing 92 in October but he still made his presence felt, racking up 491 running metres – ninth on Ulster’s list – despite playing just 480 minutes. With a full pre-season under his belt coupled with an itching to get back to playing competitive rugby, I’m confident Gilroy will play a massive part in Ulster’s season this year. Along with Faddes, Lyttle and Baloucoune, Ulster have strong wing options for the international windows.

Allen Clarke is without ten Ospreys due to the Rugby World Cup, leading to a few unfamiliar names in their team sheet to face Ulster. However Dan Evans, Luke Morgan and Keelan Giles form a pacey back three. Evans is a fan favourite at the Liberty Stadium, scoring 44 tries in 136 appearances for the region. Last term he crossed the white wash ten times. Between the trio, they scored 23 tries in the 2018-19 season.

Scott Williams and Cory Allen form a decent centre partnership. Allen has World Cup experience, having represented Wales at the 2015 tournament and contributed with a hat trick of tries against Uruguay. Williams has been capped 58 times by Wales and was one of the shocks to miss out on a spot in Gatland’s side. Up against Hume and Marshall, I expect this to be a great battle tomorrow night.

Dan Lydiate was unlucky to miss out on Wales selection and he captains the Ospreys from blindside flanker. Olly Cracknell is on the other flank and has a keen eye for a turnover. Despite this, I fancy Ulster’s forwards against the depleted Welsh region.

At the Brumbies, Sam Carter was a key cog in a successful lineout system and this should be a major strength for Ulster tomorrow night as well as throughout the season. The forwards were boosted with the arrival of McFarland last season and with a full pre-season with the side, I think Ulster’s forwards could be very hard to beat in this early part of the season.

I’ve previously expressed delight at Ulster’s summer signings as Carter, Faddes and McGrath are all quality players that will improve the starting team. Faddes’ form a couple of seasons ago saw him catapulted into reckoning for an All Blacks call up. The Kiwi is a great broken field runner and would be my tip for the competition’s top try scorer this season.

The FRU predicts: I think the upheaval of the World Cup can benefit Ulster this season and I expect them to start the season strongly, recording maximum points against the Ospreys.

Ulster   Ospreys
Matt Faddes 15 Dan Evans
Craig Gilroy 14 Luke Morgan
Luke Marshall 13 Cory Allen
James Hume 12 Scott Williams
Rob Lyttle 11 Keelan Giles
Billy Burns 10 Luke Price
John Cooney 9 Matthew Aubrey
Jack McGrath 1 Rhodri Jones
Rob Herring 2 Sam Parry
Tom O’Toole 3 Tom Botha
Kieran Treadwell 4 Lloyd Ashley
Sam Carter 5 James King
Matty Rea 6 Dan Lydiate
Jordi Murphy 7 Olly Cracknell
Sean Reidy 8 Gareth Evans
     
John Andrew 16 Scott Otten
Eric O’Sullivan 17 Gareth Thomas
Ross Kane 18 Gheorghe Gajoin
Alan O’Connor 19 Sam Cross
Greg Jones 20 Dan Baker
Dave Shanahan 21 Reuben Morgan-Williams
Michael Lowry 22 Cai Evans
Louis Ludik 23 Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler

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