Ulster fired up for their make or break test
The sense of excitement has been palpable at the Ulster training camp this week. And no wonder.
Tomorrow's clash against London Irish is the kind of contest that defines a side; gives a snapshot of their development or regression.
There has been a growing sense over the last two seasons that this Ulster side is on the march.
New players have first broken into the provincial side, then the Ireland side. The Celtic League title last season was an impressive milestone. But Europe is the ultimate barometer and Mark McCall's men know that defeat tomorrow will end their hopes at that level for another season.
There is no doubt Ulster have the personnel and game plan to get their pool five campaign back on track following the defeat to Llanelli, which has left them level with Toulouse on five points from two rounds.
The big question is whether they deliver on the big stage when it really matters in Europe.
No Ulster side have ever won on English soil in the 11-year history of the tournament. Played nine, lost nine.
It is a illustration of both the difficulty of the opponents but also a certain fragility that has undermined Ulster's ambitions away from the comforts of Ravenhill.
McCall's Ulster largely eradicated that core flaw on the Celtic League stage last season, putting together an unbeaten run in Scotland and Wales.
Yet in the Heineken Cup, the old vices returned as defeats to Biarritz and Saracens did for them.
This is a better Ulster side however. More refined, more confident, more experienced, more powerful. Irish have nothing to lose but also nothing to gain.
This season their heads have gone down in the face of adversity. Ulster know this and will strike hard and early.
The season is about to be set alight.
LONDON IRISH: TBA
ULSTER: B Cunningham; T Bowe, P Steinmetz, P Wallace, A Trimble; D Humphreys, I Boss; B Young, R Best, S Best (c), J Harrison, M McCullough, N Best, K Dawson, R Wilson.
Replacements: P Shields, J Fitzpatrick, T Barker, N McMillan, K Campbell, K Maggs, M Bartholomeusz.
Referee: Joel Jutge (France).