Ulster v Cheetahs: Where can I watch it and who are the big players?
Ulster Rugby's league season gets underway at the Kingspan Stadium tonight at 7.35pm. Here are all the details of the big game:
Where can I watch it?
Ulster's big Pro14 opener will be televised live on BBC2 NI from 7.15pm.
Where can I keep up to date with a unique take on the game?
We're glad you asked. Keep an eye on our website for a live blog - offering our view on all the action!
The first time
It's not just the Cheetahs first time playing against Ulster, but their first ever competitive match in the Northern Hemisphere. The Bloemfontein outfit, who represent the western half of the Free State, were formed in 2005 and finished 13th in Super Rugby last season.
ULSTER: C Piutau; A Trimble, T Bowe, S McCloskey, L Ludik; C Leali’ifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst; R Diack, A O’Connor; J Deysel, C Henry (captain), M Coetzee.
Replacements: J Andrew, C Black, R Ah You, M Rea, S Reidy, D Shanahan, P Nelson, D Cave.
CHEETAHS: S Petersen; R Specman, W Small-Smith, A Mgijima, M Mapimpi; C Blommetjies, S Venter; C Marais, J du Toit, J Coetzee; J Basson, R Hugo; P Schoeman, H Venter, N Jordaan (captain).
Replacements: T van Jaarsveld, O Nche, T Botha, R Bernardo,G Olivier, T Meyer, C Afrika, R Benjamin.
The key battle
Marcell Coetzee v Niell Jordaan
While there will be three debutants in the Ulster starting side tonight — and potentially a fourth should Mattie Rea be used off the bench — the most excitement could be generated by the presence of Marcell Coetzee in Ulster’s number eight jersey.
The abrasive Springbok’s first year at Kingspan Stadium was essentially a write-off after knee surgery before he arrived, and another required only four games into his comeback.
If he can stay fit, he should be the key man in this side, taking on the lion’s share of the carrying game that was all too often left to only Stuart McCloskey last season.
Neill Jordaan will captain the Cheetahs on their historic visit, and will provide an important link between forwards and backs in the absence of key figure Uzair Cassiem, who is on Springbok duty.
We’ve heard plenty about Ulster’s new attacking shape that has been worked on throughout pre-season, and there will be many keen to see what progress has been made since we last saw Ulster in competitive action.
With Marcell Coetzee and Jean Deysel able to share the load of gaining the hard yards, and Stuart McCloskey also on hand for a big carry or two, the hosts can be physical with ball in hand, even if they do seem to be lacking some explosiveness in the tight five to start the season.
Both sides are keen to play a high tempo game, with Ulster’s backline boasting plenty of talent for new-boy Christian Leali’ifano to work with after he was handed the 10 jersey on debut.
The decision to start Irish international Tommy Bowe at outside centre is another added wrinkle to the team selection and it will be interesting to see how he dovetails both with McCloskey and the players he now finds outside him.
The main threats
With the Cheetahs representing something of an unknown in Northern Hemisphere rugby, the side have had to quickly overcome the hurdles of fielding teams in both the Guinness PRO14 and Currie Cup this weekend.
Missing their only Springboks due to the ongoing Rugby Championship, the Cheetahs have, however, sent their first choice team to Belfast, leaving the reserves to fight it out in the Currie Cup.
Known for their expansive brand of high tempo rugby, the Cheetahs brought in three players from the South African Sevens side this summer — two of whom, Rosco Specman and Cecil Afrika, are in tonight’s 23 — which will only add to their desire to throw the ball around.
Specman especially is a real danger on the wing having scored for the Cheetahs in their comeback game a week ago, while on the opposite wing Makazole Mapimpi (left) is the top scorer in this season’s Currie Cup. Clayton Blommetjies is known more as a full-back and there is a suspicion he may not manage the game as well from 10.
Man in the middle
While there are two new South African refs to go along with the two new South African sides, it will be a familiar face in the middle tonight with Munsterman Andrew Brace (right) in charge.
The big statistic
Last season, when finishing in fifth place, Ulster set new team records for tries scored (68), and tries conceeded (47).
Belfast Telegraph Digital