The Guinness PRO14 kicks off in style in Belfast on Saturday evening as Ulster welcome last season’s beaten finalists Scarlets to the Kingspan Stadium.
Both teams come off encouraging 2017/18 campaigns, but will also feel they can improve their fortunes this year.
What’s at stake?
Ulster will be looking to finish above their visitors in the league table this season, after being edged out by the Welsh side and Edinburgh Rugby in the race for a precious play-off place.
However, the Irish side will sit at Europe’s top table this year, after beating Ospreys in the Champions Cup play-off match. Given the level of competition they face on all fronts in 2018/19, the Ulstermen will certainly be looking to build on their excellent late-season form, having won their last five matches.
Wayne Pivac’s Scarlets will be hoping they suffer no hangover after coming so close to being crowned Guinness PRO14 champions last year – their 40-32 defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium will not want to linger long in any of Scarlets’ memory banks.
Despite Ulster’s impressive home form last campaign – they only lost two home games all season – the Scarlets will be encouraged that they are the only Welsh region to have taken anything away from Belfast in the last five years.
However, home is where the heart is, and that is certainly true when discussing matches between these two clubs. The last four fixtures have all been won by the home side on the day, with the last exception to this rule being a one-point victory for the Llanelli outfit in February 2016.
Team news (Ulster): Three new signings make Dan McFarland’s first Ulster line-up: ex-Sale Shark Will Addison, former Gloucester man Billy Burns, and Aussie wing Henry Speight will all start in Ulster colours for the first time.
Former Scotland assistant coach McFarland also welcomes back Irish duo John Cooney and Iain Henderson, who didn’t feature in pre-season.
However, Marty Moore (calf) and Kyle McCall (elbow) have been added to Ulster’s treatment table after recent injuries in training.
Team news (Scarlets): Wayne Pivac will hope this is the longest his team’s injury list will run all season – the New Zealander is without fourteen first-team players for the trip to Northern Ireland. Newly signed Uzair Cassiem has a calf issue, whilst Welsh trio Jonathan Evans, Leigh Halfpenny and Wyn Jones miss out with foot, groin and calf problems respectively.
Angus O’Brien will have to wait for his debut after fracturing a hand, whereas Johnny McNicholl has a facial fracture.
However, new boys Clayton Blommetjies and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne do make Pivac’s starting XV, with Dan Jones and Ioan Nicholas, who scored 19 points between them against Ulster in February, only good enough for the bench.
Scarlets captain Ken Owens is taking encouragement from last season’s campaign, despite the agonising end.
He said: “[We were] disappointed to fall at the final hurdle to a very good Leinster team on the day, but the biggest thing for us was to really kick on in Europe and we managed to do that.
“It was outstanding to see the club bouncing again. Just seeing the whole community back really getting behind the Scarlets again was brilliant.
“Hopefully now we’re in a position to try and continue that.”
Newly appointed Ulster head coach Dan McFarland admits he is still getting used to his new surroundings as the PRO14 kick-off looms.
McFarland said: “My experience of Belfast is the Kingspan [Stadium] and the mattress that is on the floor in my house.
“I will admit to going to the cinema on Sunday but that’s the extent of my experience of the city so far.
“I really enjoyed my time in Scotland. Really enjoyed it. I’ve got a lot of friends there, but ultimately when a province like Ulster speak to you and say ‘we’d like you to be our head coach’, that’s special.
“Was I ready to do it? Yeah, I believe the time was right and that decision was now to become a head coach and that ultimately was a good decision. I know that in my gut.”
Key battle – Craig Gilroy v Steff Evans
Despite the international quality in both sides’ packs, tries are the key commodity in rugby.
The Belfast-born Craig Gilroy had a fantastic season for his hometown team in 2017/18, scoring more tries (10) than all but one player in the PRO14. The fact that seven of these came at the Kingspan will give any Ulster fan confidence that their winger can again cross the try-line.
Both sides have scored at least one try in each of the last five meetings between the sides, with nine in the last two.
This will give Scarlets wing Steff Evans hope that he will find a breach in the home side’s defence on Saturday; he will have to step up in the absence of New Zealander Johnny McNicholl, last season’s top try-scorer for the Llanelli club.
Key fact: Ulster Rugby have begun their Guinness PRO14 season with a defeat just once in the last nine – that came in an 8-15 loss against Dragons in 2013.
Did you know? Scarlets racked up 34 points against their hosts last time the two sides met in February. However, none of the points scorers will line-up in Scarlets’ starting XV this time round.
Ulster: Will Addison; Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Henry Speight; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, John Andrew, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor (c), Iain Henderson, Marcell Coetzee, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: Adam McBurney, Eric O’Sullivan, Ross Kane, Kieran Treadwell, Chris Henry, Dave Shanahan, Angus Curtis, Angus Kernohan.
Scarlets: Clayton Blommetjies; Tom Prydie, Jonathan Davies, Kieron Fonotia, Steff Evans; Rhys Patchell, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Rob Evans, Ken Owens (c), Werner Kruger, David Bulbring, Steve Cummins, Blade Thomson, James Davies, Josh Macleod.
Replacements: Ryan Elias, Phil Price, Simon Gardiner, Ed Kennedy, Dan Davis, Gareth Davies, Dan Jones, Ioan Nicholas.
TV: Live on Premier Sports, S4C and EIR Sport. 5:15pm kick off.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR, 79th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Andrea Piardi (FIR), John Carvill (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Eddie Wigglesworth (IRFU)
TMO: Leo Colgan (IRFU)
Ulster snatched a dramatic last-minute win as they beat last year’s Guinness PRO14 finalists Scarlets 15-13 at the Kingspan Stadium.
John Cooney’s 80th minute kick – his fifth of the afternoon – clinched a victory for the home side after they had trailed for most of the second half.
Rhys Patchell had earlier opened the scoring for the Scarlets in what turned out to be the only try of the match, but Cooney’s boot was enough to see the Irish side home.
It was a thrilling start to proceedings at the Kingspan Stadium, with the Scarlets straight out of the blocks, nearly crossing early on after a flowing attack through Blade Thomson, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne and Kieron Fonotia.
And they were rewarded for their early dominance when Patchell peeled out wide to score in the seventh minute after a sustained period of Scarlets pressure, before duly converting his own kick.
But Ulster responded well, winning and kicking three penalties in quick time, all from the boot of Cooney, to take a 9-7 lead.
Despite both sides making impressive ground, defences held firm and neither attack could turn territory into points, the home team entering the break with a slight advantage.
It was a similar story at the start of the second period, however, as Scarlets once again charged out of the blocks with great intent.
And the Welsh side’s captain Ken Owens thought he had done enough for his team’s second try of the afternoon, charging underneath the posts after a purposeful break from Patchell, but heroic defence from Nick Timoney and Will Addison prevented him from grounding the ball.
It was quickly confirmed by TMO, but Scarlets did not let up, with most of the play in the ensuing minutes taking place with the Scarlets in possession inside the Ulster 10 metre line.
And they finally got their reward – albeit to the tune of just three-points – as Dan Jones kicked a long penalty to re-take what was the narrowest of leads, 10-9.
It wasn’t long before the Irish province were back ahead, though, as more Scarlets ill-discipline led to yet another penalty, which Cooney accepted with glee, giving Ulster a 12-10 lead with twenty minutes left.
And the topsy-turvy nature of the half continued, Ulster this time careless as Chris Henry gave away a penalty under the posts, kicked by Jones.
Ulster had the chance to capitalise on a man advantage after Scarlets replacement Ed Kennedy was sin-binned for a high tackle on debutant Henry Speight in the 68th minute, meaning that they’d have to largely see out the game with 14.
Things went from bad to worse for the Scarlets as Dan Jones limped from the field with what looked a serious injury, and they gave away another penalty.
Cooney stepped up, but from an admittedly tight angle, could not convert, once again giving the Scarlets hope that they could hold on.
But it was late heartbreak for the Welsh side as they continued in the habit of conceding penalties,David Bulbring was carded and Cooney this time made no mistake, holding his nerve to put them 15-13 up with effectively the last play of the game.