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Jonathan Bradley: Ulster will get an early reunion with Pienaar

 

Familiar face: Ruan Pienaar is now with the Cheetahs
Familiar face: Ruan Pienaar is now with the Cheetahs
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Between the already flagged late start, an earlier than ever trip to South Africa, reunions with former fan favourtie Ruan Pienaar, and a return to regular Friday night rugby there were more than a few eye-catching notes for Ulster fans when the PRO14 confirmed their fixture slate for 2019/20 yesterday.

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For the fifth season in succession, the northern province will open the campaign at their Kingspan Stadium home, this time against Ospreys on September 27, giving fans a first opportunity to see new signings like Sam Carter and Matt Faddes in action.

Immediately after, however, will follow their longest away trip of the season and two games in South Africa.

The Cheetahs in the altitude of Bloemfontein beckon in round two, arguably one of the most anticipated games of the season given that it will bring Dan McFarland's men face-to-face with Pienaar once again.

The heavily decorated Springbok left Belfast in controversial circumstances two seasons ago after the IRFU blocked a proposed contract extension.

The former Natal Shark has spent the time since with Montpellier but signed a two-year deal with Cheetahs last week, opting to ply his trade in his homeland for the first time since 2010.

While his first tussle with his former side will come on home turf, he'll be back in Belfast soon enough with the Cheetahs visiting Kingspan Stadium on February 22, one day before Ireland meet England in Twickenham during the Six Nations.

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Interestingly, that is the only weekend where the league will go head-to-head with the northern hemisphere's primary rugby competition, a criticism of the PRO14 in the past.

Unavoidably, clubs will be missing Test players to start the campaign, with the World Cup likely meaning Ulster will play the first five games of their season - Ospreys, Cardiff and Zebre at home, as well as Cheetahs and Southern Kings away - without their international stars. There will then be just one PRO14 fixture - in Ulster's case, away to Munster - between the final out in Japan and the beginning of the Heineken Cup.

The festive derbies will see Ulster travelling to Leinster before Christmas, hosting Connacht the day after Boxing Day and welcoming Munster for their first fixture of 2020.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the fixture list for Ulster supporters, though, is the number of the side's games that will take place on a Friday night.

Tournament director David Jordan said: "We're pleased to have increased the number of 3pm kick-off times on Saturdays which works well for fans with families and for the broadcast audience."

That has never seemed to ring true for Ulster supporters however, who have become accustomed to the Friday night kick-offs that have become traditional since their introduction in the late 1990s. Last season, with the fixture list altered by in large thanks to a new TV deal, only five of the side's home league games were played under the Friday night lights, however that total will stand at eight this season despite the increases in Saturday fixtures elsewhere.

Discounting the final game of the campaign last year, which as it will be again, was against Leinster on a Saturday and when attendance was inflated by both the opposition and the farewells for both Rory Best and Darren Cave, the province's average gate dropped by almost 600 supporters when games were moved from the start to the middle of the weekend.

Not an insignificant number over a season, especially in a sport that still relies so heavily on numbers through the turnstiles.

It was bad news yesterday for one Ulster recruit after the province confirmed Gareth Milasinovich's ACL injury first reported in the Belfast Telegraph.

The former Worcester prop is expected to miss nine months.

One man looking increasingly likely to miss the start of the province's campaign for wholly happier reasons is Marcell Coetzee.

The South African flank put two seasons of injury woe behind him last year and has been rewarded with an international recall.

Having been called up by Rassie Erasmus to be a part of the Springboks' training camp, the 28-year-old has been named on the bench for the opening round of the Rugby Championship against Australia on Saturday.

Should he take the field, it will be his first cap in almost four years.

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