The Kingspan Stadium will welcome South African teams into the Guinness PRO14 for the very first time as Ulster play host to the Toyota Cheetahs on Friday night at 7.35pm. The much-anticipated debut will see the Cheetahs begin a two-week trip against Ulster before heading to Munster next week.
What’s at stake? The game is of huge historic importance as the first time a South African team has played in the Guinness PRO14. No doubt the Cheetahs will look to make an instant impact in a game that will be remembered for years to come.
Ulster, on a quest for their first silverware in over a decade, will be desperate to get their season off on the right foot with a host of new faces and coaches.
Team news (Ulster): Christian Lealiifano will make his first Ulster appearance tonight and partners John Cooney in the half-backs, with the Kingspan faithful desperate to see the duo hit it off.
Jean Deysel, who had a loan spell at Munster last season, is another big summer signing and he starts on the blindside alongside Chris Henry who captains from openside. Ulster name a dangerous looking backline that includes Charles Piutau, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Stuart McCloskey.
Team news (Cheetahs): Highly-rated winger Makazole Mapimpi starts on the wing after joining from the Kings over the summer. Regular captain Francois Venter is unavailable as he’s part of the Springboks squad playing in the Rugby Championship.
Talking points: It seems the whole world will have their eyes on this clash and everybody wants to see how the first skirmish between the hemispheres plays out. The Cheetahs will be desperate to prove they can mix it with Europe’s best, in a match that’s more significant than merely the action on the pitch.
Key Battle: Ulster will be wary of Mapimpi after he stormed his way to 11 tries in Super Rugby last season. Fortunately for the Irish province the man tasked with marking Mapimpi is last year’s captain Andrew Trimble. A club legend, Trimble has endured several injuries in recent seasons, but looks back to his best for the start of this Guinness PRO14 campaign.
Key stat: Ulster conceded at least one try in every Guinness PRO14 match in 2016/17.
Did you know? South Africans who’ve previously played for Ulster are Johann Muller, Franco van der Merwe and scrum-half hero Ruan Pienaar.
Ulster: C Piutau; A Trimble, T Bowe, S McCloskey, L Ludik, C Lealiifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst, R Diack, A O’Connor, J Deysel, C Henry (capt), 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 (capt).
Replacements: T van Jaarsveld, O Nche, T Botha, R Bernardo, G Oliver, T Meyer, C Afrika, R Benjamin.
TV: BBC Sport NI (KO 7.35pm)
Match officials – Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU). Assistant Referee 1: Simon Rees (WRU). AR2: Leo Colgan (IRFU). TMO: Jon Mason (WRU).
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie
A relentless Ulster didn’t stand on ceremony as they bested Guinness PRO14 newcomers Toyota Cheetahs 42-19 in the opening round of the new season tonight.
The Cheetahs, one of two new South African outfits that have joined the championship, put on a gutsy display as they made their Guinness PRO14 bow at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast but were unable to withstand the men in white.
Four first-half tries proved to the bedrock of Ulster’s success, with Les Kiss’ troops getting their latest campaign off to the perfect start.
John Cooney lit the blue touch paper on a rip-roaring contest with a ninth-minute penalty but with 17 minutes on the clock, Clayton Blommetjies grabbed himself a piece of history by scoring the Cheetahs’ first Guinness PRO14 try, Makazonle Mapimpi converting.
In the blink of an eye though, Ulster hit straight back through Tommy Bowe, who raced clear to score after fine work from Charles Piutau and Louis Ludik.
The Cheetahs soon restored their lead through Mapimpi, who dotted down after hacking through, William Small-Smith converting, but back came Ulster, who nosed back into the ascendancy courtesy of Alan O’Connor, Cooney adding the extras.
From there, the Ulstermen planted their foot firmly on the accelerator, Stuart McCloskey barging his way through to score, Cooney again successfully converting to make it 22-14.
Then, with 33 minutes gone, Jean Deysel and Marcel Coetzee combined to devastating effect to tee up Piutau for another try.
Half-time offered the Cheetahs come brief respite but just moments into the second period, Ulster racked up their third unanswered score, Ludik powering over the line for an unconverted try.
However, with 50 minutes on the clock, the visitors did stem the tide as Cecil Afrika teed up Sergeal Petersen to make it 35-19, Small-Smith again successfully adding the extras.
A Cooney penalty five minutes later handed Ulster some more breathing space and with five minutes of time remaining, replacement Peter Nelson cleverly faked an offload before darting forward to get in on the act.
The 24-year-old then converted his own try to round off a fine night’s work for the Ulstermen.