Ulster supporters will see inside new-look Ravenhill tonight with Leinster in town for a pre-season friendly marking the start of the 2013-14 campaign.
Mark Anscombe, the hosts’ coach, has gone out of his way to stress that tonight’s fixture (7.30pm) counts for nothing in the search for points or silverware.
For him, this is sparring ahead of the battles to come when the season-proper kicks off with a trip to Newport two weeks hence.
“Everyone who has trained will get 40 minutes,” he said, underlining the fact that Ulster will deploy at least 25 players.
“That’s the way we’re treating it; we want at have a look at guys and see where they’re at. They have trained well so this will be a good challenge for them.”
Following tonight’s set-to against the 2012-13 RaboDirect PRO12 winners, Ulster play last term’s English Aviva Premiership champions, Leicester Tigers, at Welford Road, so they certainly cannot be accused of having pitted themselves against soft opponents in the countdown to action-proper.
“No, these are two good tests, two tough games which will answer some questions for us,” Anscombe said before differentiating between these fixtures and those to come.
“Pre-season games and competitive games are totally different and you’ve got to treat them for what they are,” he said. “Pre-season games are in preparation for competition rather than a measure of who’s the better team.
“If you start beating your chest about what you’re doing in pre-season you’re in danger of losing focus of what you’re really here for and of what you’re aiming to do.”
History bears him out, his track-record confirming that he does not allow himself or his players to get carried away by good results and certainly not those chalked up at this stage.
“We won a pre-season game in France last year — the first time Ulster had ever won over there — but we treated that for what it was,” he recalled.
“So am I going to be suicidal if we lose to Leinster or Leices
ter in these two games? No. Am I going to be beating the drums and saying that we’re the best team around if we win them or start suggesting that means we’re going to win trophies? No.
“We treat these games for what they are — preparation for our first real game of the season against Newport (September 6).”
But while Anscombe (pictured) is right in saying there is nothing tangible on offer at this stage, it is equally true that a winning start to the season is good for players and supporters alike.
Turning the clock back 12 months, either side of a 14-14 draw with Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill, Ulster beat Bayonne 20-15 in France and were 24-20 victors against Newcastle Falcons. Those excellent pre-season results served as the launch-pad for an unprecedented 13 wins on the trot, note.
And while there will be more important Ulster-Leinster clashes this season, nevertheless those who flock to Ravenhill tonight will do so in the expectation of total commitment on the part of those in white jerseys.
Some of the players have almost two months’ work behind them and following that long, slow build-up they are itching to play. With it being an inter-pro and the first hit-out of the season, motivation ought not to be a problem.
Chris Farrell, Ulster’s talented 20-year-old centre, put it well when he said: “I don’t think you can ever call it a friendly. And a lot of the boys are still a bit raw from the (RaboDirect) final.”
Certainly losing 24-18 to their southern rivals at the RDS will be a barb and while victory tonight would be little consolation for what happened on May 25, it would be a lot more acceptable than a further defeat.
“We played Leinster three times last year and lost one,” Anscombe said. Then highlighting Ulster’s improvement he added: “We got beaten by Leinster in the Heineken Cup final 42-14 (May 2011) and last year, though we didn’t play brilliantly, it was 24-18 (PRO12 final, May 2013). So the gap is narrowing.
“We’ve got a lot of experience and we’ve got good young guys coming through, so it’s about getting that right mix in how we play and having that edge in our game.”
ULSTER: Peter Nelson; Rory Scholes, Jared Payne (captain), Chris Farrell, Michael Allen; James McKinney, Michael Heaney; Kyle McCall, Niall Annett, Declan Fitzpatrick; Lewis Stevenson, Neil McComb; Mike McComish, Sean Doyle, Nick Williams. Replacements: Callum Black, Jonny Murphy, Bronson Ross, Alan O’Connor, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Roger Wilson, Ian Porter, Chris Cochrane, Luke Marshall, David McIlwaine, Ricky Andrew.
LEINSTER: Darren Hudson; Darragh Fanning, Brendan Macken, Noel Reid, Andrew Boyle, Jimmy Gopperth, John Cooney; Jack O'Connell, Aaron Dundon, Martin Moore; Tadhg Beirne, Quinn Roux; Rhys Ruddock (captain), Dominic Ryan, Leo Auva’a. Replacements from: James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Michael Bent, Tadhg Furlong, Ben Marshall, Jordi Murphy, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath, Colm O'Shea, Adam Byrne, Thomas Daly, Billy Dardis, Thomas Farrell, Cathal Marsh.