OUR Rugby correspondent tackles all the battles in tonight’s clash both on and off the field:
NG Dragons v Ulster
RaboDirect Pro12 Rodney Parade (7.15pm)
Last time they met: Ulster 31 NG Dragons 5
(RaboDirect PRO12 League: 12/4/2013, Ravenhill)
THE MAIN THREATS
Opposing sides know what to expect when they go to Rodney Parade – hard, tough, uncompromising rugby designed to ruffle feathers in the hope of seeing any of those of the white variety raised in surrender.
With this being the opening game of a new campaign, we can expect to see plenty of that sort of approach tonight. The Dragons players’ well-rested, fit-again bodies are itching to get playing again and, following last season’s ignominious finish, they are returning with fresh hope, ambition and determination. Their first-up challenge being in Newport against last term’s table-toppers, who registered a home and away double over them, testosterone will be coursing through the Dragons’ veins.
On opening nights in particular, those who fared badly at their previous attempt have a tendency to return fired-up and intent on proving a point. That is what Ulster will face tonight – real intensity, hunger and a desire to avenge last season’s double whammy.
Mark Anscombe’s selection makes it plain that, while he wants a fast, open, running game, there is sufficient ballast in his side for the dour, dogged, attritional aspect of the contest, too.
To that end it’s a great mix and what makes it particularly interesting is the quality and experience he will be introducing from the bench. Tom Court and Declan Fitzpatrick are Ireland props, while Darren Cave is a capped centre.
There is genuine pace in the back line while it’s a strong — and mobile — back row, too, so watch for that Diack, Henry, Wilson unit taking on the home defence round the fringes in a softening-up offensive.
Ulster know that while the Dragons lose regularly, they tend not to lose heavily. They give little away; you have to grind points out against them. In other words there are no freebies; you earn anything you get.
HEAD TO HEAD
Tom Prydie v Andrew Trimble:
This promises to be an interesting one-to-one, with Tom Prydie and Andrew Trimble famed for the points they contribute.
Trimble had a memorable season last time round, the highlight being his haul of individual awards — RaboDirect PRO12 Try of the Season, Ulster Player of the Year and the Ulster Rugby Supporters’ Club’s Outstanding Player of the Season, to say nothing of having completed a half-century of appearances for Ireland.
With 34 tries — 170 points — to his credit thus far in the PRO12, Trimble is hoping to add to that tally and, by so doing, boost his chances of further international honours in the post-Declan Kidney era.
Prydie has notched up 175 points in PRO12 to date, which is a remarkable return for a player with just 24 appearances in the tournament. Only 30 of those points have come in the form of tries, however, with by far the greater share of the balance being of the off-the-tee variety. He’s a pretty useful goal-kicker.
Richie Rees v Paul Marshall:
Another of those Little and Large pairings, with Richie Rees holding the aces in terms of height. He is 5ft 11ins whereas Paul Marshall is 5ft 8ins.
Weight-wise, though, there is little to choose between them, with Ulster’s Pocket Rocket just 4lbs lighter than his rival, the scales tipping at 12st 10lbs and 12st 6lbs respectively.
Having been awarded his first Ireland cap for a last-minute appearance against Italy in the Six Nations, 28-year-old Marshall added two more off the bench in the tour of Canada and the USA. This pair’s ability to shift ball at speed could be the difference.
Andrew Coombs v Dan Tuohy:
Andrews Coombs, who broke through as a Welsh international lock last season and ended up a Six Nations Championship winner at the first attempt, is keen to justify the faith placed in him by Dragons’ new director of rugby Lyn Jones who has handed him the captaincy of the Newport-based region.
Quite an accolade for Coombs who at 6ft 4ins and 17st 2lbs has physique and — given that he will be 31 next month — experience.
Ulster lock Tuohy will have been shaken by last weekend’s sin-binning and criticism following an incident with Leicester Tigers captain.
Standing 6ft 5ins, weighing 17st 11lbs and now 28, he has height, weight and age advantages. And with seven Ireland caps to Coombs’ six for Wales, he shades it there, too.
His problem is that, currently, Coombs is higher up the pecking order for inclusion at international level.
This is an important year for both men and either of them could kick it off on the right note tonight by winning the line-out battle at |the other’s expense.
A BIT OF PREVIOUS
NG DRAGONS’ results in their past six matches:
Dragons 22 Bath 20*
Edinburgh 31 Dragons 24
Dragons 20 Munster 24
Ulster 31 Dragons 5
Dragons 20 Scarlets 28
Ospreys 52 Dragons 19
All others 2012-13 RaboDirect PRO12
ULSTER’s results in their past six matches:
Leicester Tigers 30 Ulster 10*
Ulster 21 Leinster 19*
Ulster 18 Leinster 24***
Ulster 28 Scarlets 17**
Ulster 37 Cardiff Blues 13
Connacht 18 Ulster 24
All others 2012-13 RaboDirect PRO12
THE MATCH IN BRIEF:
Only once have the Dragons opened a campaign by bagging maximum points — last season when they beat Italian newcomers Zebre 37-6 in the RaboDirect PRO12.
However, they finished particularly badly, winning just one of their final six, to finish 11th in the table, with only Zebra beneath them.
Their welcome break from losing came on April 19 when, playing at home, the Dragons registered a 30-24 victory over a cobbled-together Munster side whose sights were fixed on a Heineken Cup semi-final meeting with Clermont Auvergne in Montpellier the following weekend.
* IN contrast, Ulster have begun each of the past three seasons with a victory.
In 2010-11 they beat the title holders, Ospreys, 27-26 in a Ravenhill thriller. Twelve months later they were 28-14 victors over Glasgow Warriors, again in Belfast. Last season, Mark Anscombe’s first at the helm, again saw Ulster open against Glasgow at Ravenhill, winning 18-10.
* NEWPORT Gwent Dragons have beaten Ulster only once since the opening round of the 2009-10 season — 22-9 at Rodney Parade on September 30, 2011.
* IN their last 10 meetings against Welsh regions, Ulster’s only defeat against any of the Principality’s four representatives was on February 8, 2013 when they went down 16-12 at home to Ospreys.
That marked the start of Ulster’s only wobbly spell last season, their record during that blip having been played five, won one, drawn won, lost three. In fairness to them, however, at the time Ulster had more than 20 players missing due to injury or international calls for the Six Nations.
After losing to Ospreys, they beat Zebre 26-3, but then went down 20-14 to Glasgow at Scotstoun and drew 29-29 with Benetton Treviso in Belfast before suffering a 14-8 defeat by Edinburgh at Murrayfield.