Where the Guinness PRO12 tussle will be won or lost
Jonathan Bradley runs his eye over all the key battles and showdowns in tonight’s Guinness PRO12 tussle.
Head to Head
Paddy Jackson v Sam Davies
Ulster's young out-half has endured a testing first block of the season but will be looking to put that all behind him when PRO12 action resumes tonight. Not involved with Ireland at any point during November, Jackson’s slow start following a back injury at the end of last season has been the subject of much discussion.
Without Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half, and with his tactical kicking not up to standard, he has struggled to exert authority. With a quality backline at his disposal tonight thanks to those returning from international duty, as well as a relatively solid pack, he will know this is the perfect opportunity to get back on track.
Ospreys’ usual number 10 Dan Biggar has been a model of consistency in recent years but, due to international commitments, he is replaced by Sam Davies for this clash. A former IRB Junior Player of the Year, Davies possesses plenty of potential but, despite strong goal-kicking, has put in some mixed displays when filling in for his more senior colleague over the last three weeks.
Callum Black v Dmitri Arhip
When Tom Court departed for London Irish this summer, Callum Black may have expected a significant increase to his Ulster playing
time. However, thanks largely to the impressive strides made by fellow loosehead Andrew Warwick, this will be only the fourth start made by the American-born 28-year-old this season.
Known for his scrummaging ability, Black displayed an increasing responsibility for ball-carrying last time out against the Dragons but it will be in the tight exchanges where he is tested. While Ospreys have been hit hard by the international Tests this weekend, Dmitri Arhip will be at the Kingspan Stadium rather than turning out for his native Moldova against Sweden. Having played against Poland in the Fira Championship last weekend, the 26-year-old has been granted permission to represent his club tonight. Highly rated in Swansea thanks to a number of impressive showings this year, his battle with Black at the set-piece, where the heavyweight eastern European has 14 kilosover his opponent, will be an interesting test for both men.
Roger Wilson v Dan Baker
Roger Wilson’s last attempt at captaining Ulster was disappointingly cut short when he was forced off after just six minutes by a shoulder injury against the Dragons three weeks ago. The former Northampton man has fully recovered however and retains his place at the base of the scrum.
With Chris Henry set for a lengthy absence, Robbie Diack required by Ireland, and Sean Doyle having left for the Brumbies during the summer, Ulster’s loose forward options are severely weakened in comparison to recent years and Wilson’s experience tonight will be crucial given that he will have the virtually untested pair of Sean Reidy and Clive Ross either side of him.
While Ulster have been boosted by the return of an international trio in the backline, James King and Dan Baker have been released by Warren Gatland to take their place in the Ospreys' backrow. A ball-carrier of some note, Baker has two Wales caps and may have added to that total if not for an injury last month.
The main threats
Even without their six Wales internationals, injuries to Eli Walker and Joe Bearman, and the loss of Jeff Hasler and Josh Matavesi to Canada and Fiji respectively, this is an Ospreys side who will still test Ulster with dangerous strike runners such as Aisea Natoga. Wales centre Ashley Beck is back from injury and brings a touch of class to proceedings while Dan Evans provides a threat running the ball from deep.
Much will depend on how the second-string half-back pairing of Sam Davies and Martin Roberts can step up. Although still without Iain Henderson and Dan Tuohy, Ulster have options in the tight five despite internationals.
Only Rory Best will be in Ireland action and with Rob Herring in his place there is a settled look to the unit. The backline is boosted by the return of Craig Gilroy, Stuart Olding and Darren Cave from Ireland and will do damage if the pack supplies good ball.
Ospreys’ rise to top the table this season has been built around their impressive half-back pairing of Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb who have controlled games and kept mistakes to a minimum. That success has, however, brought with it international recognition and both will start for Wales against the All Blacks tomorrow. Even with the high amount of Ospreys’ absentees - 22 players are unavailable - Steve Tandy will still demand that his side are well-drilled when the opposition have the ball.
Their Pro12 best points difference is the product of a stinginess in defence - bettered only by Ulster - and games between the two are often tight affairs. With the last five games producing a losing bonus point for the beaten side, a narrow margin of victory can be expected once again and accurate goal-kicking, in what are expected to be testing conditions come kick-off, will be of paramount importance.
Ospreys have won their last four games against Irish opposition and have already beaten both Munster and Connacht this season.
The Welshmen will, therefore, be in a confident mood and unlikely to be intimidated by the Ulster crowd at the Kingspan Stadium tonight.
A bit of previous
ULSTER’S LAST SIX RESULTS:
Ulster 23 Newport Dragons 6**
Ulster 13 Toulon 23*
Leicester 25 Ulster 18*
Ulster 29 Glasgow 9**
Ulster 30 Edinburgh 0**
Zebre 13 Ulster 6**
*Champions Cup **Pro12
OSPREYS’ LAST SIX RESULTS:
Ospreys 35 Dragons 51***
Ospreys 9 Saracens 21***
Ospreys 26 Connacht 11**
Northampton 34 Ospreys 6*
Ospreys 42 Benetton Treviso 7*
Ospreys 26 Cardiff15**
*Champions Cup * *Pro12 ***LV Cup