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Ulster take on Newport Gwent Dragons at the Kingspan

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster can go top of the Guinness Pro 12 with a victory over Newport Gwent Dragons at the Kingspan in Friday night's game.

With all the young players making an impact in the Ulster team this season, the elder statesman has become something of a dying breed at Kingspan Stadium.

Last week, Jacob Stockdale (20) and Lorcan Dow (21) were the latest academy products to make their senior bow in a season where Kyle McCall, Alan O'Connor, Rory Scholes and the now injured Peter Nelson have all made an impact.

Such is the influx of new blood, it is easy to forget that the likes of Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall, Iain Henderson, and Stuart McCloskey have all yet to reach even their 25th birthday.

One exception is the 34-year-old Roger Wilson who, having made 16 appearances already this season, starts again at number 8 against Newport Gwent Dragons tonight at Kingspan Stadium (7.35pm kick-off).

While his fellow back-rower Nick Williams admitted to occasionally feeling like a "dinosaur" last week, Wilson says that age is not something often forgotten in the Ulster changing room.

"I get enough stick about it to be reminded every day anyway," joked the former Northampton Saint.

"I'm the oldest in the squad now and I've been around a while now so you do feel it a little bit.

"Come game time you're okay because you've had the chance to do your recovery but it's the period after the game, the two days after, that are the worst. Coming into training at the start of the week is difficult.

"They manage the old boys okay here, sometimes we get away with the odd training session, so it's not too bad.

"They look after us but it keeps you as competitive as you ever were.

"You don't want to use (age) as an excuse to ease off.

"Sometimes in the gym, just as an example, if you see younger guys starting to compete or overtake you then, from a personal pride point of view, it keeps you competitive.

"You never want to see yourself falling behind too much."

With five of Ulster's squad preparing for Ireland's Six Nations opener with Wales on Sunday - Rob Herring and Paddy Jackson were released to start at hooker and on the bench respectively - young players will be more important than ever over the next run of games with Wilson possessing every confidence they can fill the void left by absent international stars.

"This time of year tests the squad, it always does with boys at the Six Nations," said the man who will expect to join Andrew Trimble in Ulster's 200-cap club this month.

"There's been a real emphasis the last few weeks to make sure that young guys coming in and out of training are up to speed with all the plays so that if they are called upon, then the transition is a bit easier

"The ones who have played have done really well; they haven't let us down whatsoever.

"We're more than capable of having boys step in for the ones who are away with Ireland.

"We've done that well so far so we have real confidence in our squad now."

With usual skipper Rory Best now leading Joe Schmidt's side, Wilson says the senior players must assist captain Herring in guiding the younger players.

"It's an opportunity for other players who have been here a while to stick their hands up. The likes of myself, Ian Humphreys, Nick, Franco (van der Merwe), I think we have plenty of cover.

"It's up to the rest of us to stand up this week and for the rest of this period."

A rearranged fixture after the original date earlier this year had to be moved to accommodate the visit to Oyonnax, the game will be the only in the Pro12 this weekend.

As such, Ulster have the chance to move from fifth to top with a win, a huge motivation for the team, according to Wilson.

"It's a massive incentive for us to go top," he said.

"This block of games, we've five more left and without looking too far ahead, potentially if we win them all then we're in a really good place.

"We'll start with this week; to go top is a big incentive.

"Last week (against Treviso) we didn't start the game well. The first-half was pretty poor in general.

"You don't want to be chasing a game against these boys so it would be great to get off to a good start and build on it."

The men of Gwent will be less affected by Six Nations call-ups than Ulster - the loss of Lion Toby Faletau the main absentee while Hallam Amos is released to start on the wing - with Wilson expecting opposition in obdurate mood after beating Leinster last week.

"(Faletau) is the big loss for them and they had a good win last week.

"They're tricky. They've good line speed.

"They come up hard and put pressure on you. They make it difficult around the breakdown and they can make it a bit niggly.

"The one thing for us this week is we're back at home now for a few weeks, but we've got to make sure that we don't rely on the home advantage. We need to be at our best."

If they are, the Pro12's summit beckons.

An independent Appeal Committee yesterday decided not to allow an appeal by Saracens' Chris Ashton against the 10-week suspension handed to him for making contact with the eye or eye area of Ulster's Luke Marshall when the sides met in the Champions Cup last month.

The wing will miss the Six Nations and is free to play from March 28.

Ashton said: "I vehemently maintain that I have never made an attempt to intentionally make contact with the eye area of any other player. To miss out on the chance to represent my country and Saracens during this period is extremely disappointing, but the judgement stands and it is one that I will respect and accept."

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