Ulster Rugby aim to start season on high by leaving Scarlets red-faced
There really isn't such a thing as a soft landing any more in the now Guinness PRO12, but Ulster's opening league game at the Scarlets (kick-off 2.40pm) could have fallen kinder for them.
A first outing away in Wales worryingly brings to mind last season's defeat at the Dragons never mind the fact that on the previous occasion Ulster visited Parc y Scarlets they also finished second best back in November.
And just to add to Ulster's difficulty today, the Scarlets are putting it about that they are on a bit of an up-slope with some new signings on board and a couple of eye-catching pre-season friendly results – and all this despite the off-season departure of head coach and club stalwart Simon Easterby to Ireland.
Indeed, unlike Ulster's interim coach Les Kiss, the Scarlets' new man Wayne Pivac – he had originally arrived last summer as Easterby's assistant – has been only too willing to supply soundbites about his side's hopes and aims.
Of course things have been difficult at Ulster after the dramatic departure of David Humphreys and then swift removal of Mark Anscombe but the notion being put about is that all the off-field turmoil has now been put to bed.
Fair enough, but if Ulster fail to get the result they want today then it is possible that the wondering might begin.
So, the pressure is very much on Ulster to deliver the all-important win and bring vital momentum to their campaign from the off while also demonstrating that, after all the summer turbulence, Kiss is having the desired impact even if he has not been willing to share his thoughts in public.
With skipper Rory Best and Iain Henderson apparently ready to come back into the reckoning next week, while Paddy Jackson and Tommy Bowe are believed to still not be fit, Kiss has played the strongest hand he could with new signings Louis Ludik, Wiehahn Herbst and Franco van der Merwe all making their competitive debuts while Chris Henry – who toured Argentina with Ireland in June – gets his first start.
It promises to be a baptism of fire for Herbst who will come up against the gnarled Phil John in what should generally be quite a collision between the front rows.
Henry, Dan Tuohy and Robbie Diack, as well as skipper Roger Wilson, will need to be at their most dynamic and physical against a strong Scarlets pack though having Nick Williams sprung from the bench will hopefully add plenty of oomph to Ulster's cause.
In the backs, Stuart Olding has shaken off last week's niggle from Ulster's impressive win over Leinster to take his place in midfield alongside Jared Payne in an attack-minded backline while Craig Gilroy will hopefully get a chance to show his pace though a lot will doubtless depend on the game management and quality of possession provided to half-backs Ian Humphreys and Paul Marshall.
Ludik can also cause the Scarlets problems if he can be worked clear while Andrew Trimble and Luke Marshall are sure to bring something of note from the bench.
* ULSTER Under-20s scored four tries for a bonus point in a 27-7 victory against Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium last night, writes Ronnie Ingram.
It was just after the restart with Connacht still depleted – Cian Romaine had been binned after 34 minutes – that home scrum-half Conor Young cut through from 30 metres out for Sean O'Hagan to goal.
Ulster kept up the pressure and following a five metre scrum Stephen McVeigh picked up and crossed for a simple score which Aidan Moynihan converted.
It was fitting that Adam Liddell should show his speed to go over for the next as he would probably have scored earlier but for two atrocious passes to him close to the line.
O'Hagan converted before more good work by Liddell led to a Jack Owens try and Ulster were 22-7 ahead.
A pushover try by Lorcan Dow secured the bonus.
This afternoon it is the turn of Ulster Under-19s and Schools to face Connacht.
* A generous helping of fun rugby will be the order of the day tomorrow when the Perennials club play their first game of the season by taking on a Harlequins selection at Deramore (2.30pm).
Former Ulster European Cup winner Jan Cunningham will tog out for the Perennials side on an occasion when the club will hand over a cheque for around £4,000 to three charities.
The club's nominated charities are Brainwaves, the Centre for Independent Living and the East Belfast Rotary Club.