Magners League: High-flying Ulster set to take the Boks seat
Among those watching most intently from the old Ravenhill grandstand tonight will be Ulster’s record signing, Ruan Pienaar.
It will be the Springbok’s first viewing of his new colleagues and of Magners League action. One wonders what he will make of both.
Whilst they will hope to impress him, Pienaar’s (below) Ulster teammates’ priority will be to bank four more Magners League points by chalking up their third successive win in the 2010/11 series.
Two hard-earned, ground-out victories over Ospreys and Aironi find Ulster on the second of the Magners League ladder’s 12 rungs.
Played two, won two. So far so good.
Tonight a third successive triumph — this one against opponents whose Belfast record rather than their start to the current campaign ought to be uppermost in Ulster minds — would register significantly on the domestic and European Richter scales.
This is a big chance for Ulster to state their case forcibly as a team capable of doing damage and developing a winning habit.
The word that coach Brian McLaughlin has stressed over and over again is consistency and a hat-trick of wins from the first three games would go a long way towards proving that Ulster have made genuine progress in that respect. It would also see them bag the scalp of the first of four visiting sides who managed to storm the Ravenhill fortress last season.
And if the memory of September 18, 2009 is painful, that pales into insignificance when measured alongside events a month later when the Scots pinched a 17-13 Murrayfield victory which was to cost Ulster very dearly in their bid to get out of their Heineken Cup group for the first time since 1999.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, we are told — and Ravenhill is seldom warm. Tonight’s team — as ever chosen within the |constraints of the Irish Player Management Programme — has been selected with the attainment of that objective the primary consideration.
Witness four changes to the back line from that which defeated Aironi last weekend.
It’s an all-changed back three. With Jamie Smith having recovered from his facial injury, he replaces Adam D'Arcy at full-back. The Ballymena boy has fond memories of his last appearance against these particular opponents having scored the first of Ulster’s five tries at Murrayfield back in April.
The wingers who will play alongside him are Ireland’s Andrew Trimble and US Eagle Paul Emerick, the player drafted in on a three-month contract to provide cover for the former who was not expected to return until mid-October.
They replace David McIlwaine and Tommy Seymour |respectively and as well as being delighted to welcome Trimble back to the Ravenhill stage the home crowd will be curious to see what exactly debutant Emerick brings to the table.
If he impresses, he could find himself continuing until such times as Simon Danielli is able to resume.
And with Paddy Wallace resting as per Ireland’s call, Ian Whitten partners Darren Cave in midfield.
Paul Marshall and Niall O’Connor continue at half-back, the only back unit to have survived intact from last weekend.
Up front, Tom Court continues at tighthead having moved across to occupy that berth after only five minutes at Stadio Zaffanella, that in response to Declan Fitzpatrick’s calf injury.
Bryan Young, who entered the fray in the number one slot, is retained, with Andi Kyriacou hooking between that pair.
Rory Best starts on the bench, as do BJ Botha and Paddy McAllister — a pretty impressive front row trio to be able to introduce as the night unfolds.
There is an engine room change too, with Tim Barker — outstanding so far this season — dropping to the bench allowing Ryan Caldwell to partner captain Johann Muller. The only back row change sees Stephen Ferris recalled having been rested last weekend.
Boosted by having just signed a two-year Ulster contract extension, Ferris’s restoration sees Pedrie Wannenburg moving to the bench. Gates open at 6pm and tickets will be available then.
Meanwhile, the Ulster Ravens are in action today too.
They take on Munster A at Nenagh in the first of their Interprovincial matches.
Ulster Ravens: A D’Arcy; T Seymour, N Spence, J Shiels, M McCrea; J McKinney, M Heaney; M Cromie, J Burns, A Macklin; C Napier, N McComb; TJ Anderson, A Birch, T Patton. Replacements: N Annett, A Whitten, R Hackney, P Pritchard, J Bloomfield, M Allen, C Cochrane, C Gaston.