Ulster in great shape for first battle of season
It says something for Ulster’s strength in depth that even with nine players absent on World Cup duty they are capable of naming an impressive 29-man squad for Friday night’s RabobankDirect PRO 12 opener against Glasgow at Ravenhill.
But while coach Brian McLaughlin is pleased with pre-season progress, he is too canny to allow himself to read too much into the victories over Neath (34-15) and Harlequins (22-5).
McLaughlin put things in context by saying: “After Bayonne (where Ulster lost 40-3) I think we have pushed on very well and we’re in good shape.
“But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating on Friday night.
“We’ve talked about what we want to do and we showed what we can do last Friday night (against Harlequins).
“But it’s a matter now of proving that we can do it in the heat of battle and the heat of competition and that’s one of the things we’ll have to be on the money for come Friday night.
“If you’re looking at the Harlequins game you’re thinking, ‘Yes, we’ve done well against a fancied Premiership side’.
“So from that point of view we have to be exceptionally happy with where we are.
“To have played the way we did was very satisfying indeed.
“Our scrum is improving, our line-out stuttered a little bit at times — out of 15 line-outs we lost four — but I think the key thing we have been looking at in pre-season is how we’re going to have a go at the opposition’s line-out.
“Certainly we feel our defence has improved very well so from that point of view we’re confident enough.”
Ever demanding, the coach qualified his praise by adding: “The key thing now is that we back it up.”
In the absence of Johann Muller, who is in New Zealand with the Springboks, Chris Henry continues as captain.
Fit-again Dan Tuohy is scheduled to make his first start since tearing a hamstring against Newport Gwent Dragons in the final Magners League match.
Having had a 20 minute run against ’Quins on Friday night, he will pack down alongside Lewis Stevenson in the engine-room.
Former Ireland international Mark McCall has been handed a brand new three-year contract by the English champions Saracens.
The ex-Ulster coach took over from Brendan Venter as director of rugby at the Premiership club and he and his coaching staff have all been handed new deals.
"Not only do we have a talented group of coaches, they are also an exceptional group of people and that is just as important," chairman Nigel Wray said.
"We have stability within our coaching and playing staff, and they work fantastically hard for each other, which makes me so excited about the future."