Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss has targeted a fast start to the Guinness PRO12 season after naming his side to take on Newport Gwent Dragons on Friday night at the Kingspan Stadium.
Ulster have lost just once on the opening weekend of the Guinness PRO12 since 2009: 8-15 to the Dragons in Newport in 2013.
Academy prop Ross Kane, Charles Piutau and Brett Herron are in line to make their competitive debuts for the province, while Ireland internationals Craig Gilroy, Stuart Olding and Sean Reidy return to the team for the first time this season.
“If we can get off to a good start it would be massive and it would certainly make things easier,” said Kiss
“To gain that momentum early would be handy. If we want to aspire to great things at the end of the season we would hope to build consistency and get a good few points between now and Christmas,” he said.
The Ulstermen were defeated by Leinster in Dublin in last season’s semi-finals, but finished the regular season with a run of four straight victories.
Newport Gwent Dragons are in the midst of their worst ever sequence of results in the Guinness PRO12 having lost their last ten encounters since beating Leinster at Rodney Parade on 29 January, whilst their most recent away win in the Championship came on a trip to Treviso in March 2015.
Rodney Ah You is unavailable for selection having suffered delayed onset concussive symptoms following Friday’s 29-19 win over Northampton Saints and he will now follow the concussion return to play protocol. With fellow tighthead props Wiehahn Herbst, Ricky Lutton and Jonny Simpson also injured, Kane has been elevated into a starting position.
The 21-year-old will be joined in in the front row by Callum Black and Rob Herring, who will again skipper the side from hooker. Pete Browne and Franco van der Merwe will continue their combination in the second row.
Reidy’s inclusion at openside flanker leads to a re-shuffle in the back row, with Clive Ross moving to blindside and Roger Wilson continuing at number 8.
Herron will partner Ruan Pienaar at half back, while Stuart McCloskey and Olding will form an exciting midfield partnership. Piutau, Gilroy and Ireland U20 star Jacob Stockdale will occupy the back three positions. Louis Ludik was unavailable for selection because of a hand injury picked up against Northampton.
John Andrew, Kyle McCall, Andy Warwick, Alan O’Connor and Robbie Diack will provide forward reinforcements from the bench, with Paul Marshall, Sam Windsor and Robert Lyttle, who is also in line for a competitive debut, offering backline cover.
Carl Meyer is selected at full-back for the Dragons alongside wingers Adam Warren and Pat Howard. The centre partnership also remains unchanged with newcomer Sam Beard getting the nod alongside Jack Dixon. The halfbacks also stay the same as Nick Macleod and Sarel Pretorius retain their positions.
The front row sees newcomers Sam Hobbs and Craig Mitchell come into play alongside hooker Thomas Rhys Thomas. The second row sees a mixture of youth and experience as Cory Hill joins forces with Rynard Landman, whilst the back row consists of flankers Ollie Griffiths, Nic Cudd and number 8 Ed Jackson.
Young flanker Ollie Griffiths is looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead this season; “My first game for the Dragons was Ulster away.
“Ulster always have a good crowd and are a strong team with a lot to offer so it will be a challenge, but the Exeter game should stand us in good stead, especially the first 50 minutes.
“Exeter are one of the best teams we will come up against all season so sharpen up a few things and we will be in with a good shout.”
At Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm. Live on BBC Sport NI
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR, 54th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Matteo Liperini (FIR), Helen O’Reilly (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Wayne Sheridan (IRFU)
TMO: Stefano Penne (FIR)
A dream debut for Rob Lyttle inspired Ulster to come from behind to kick off the new Guinness PRO12 campaign in style with a comfortable 29-8 victory over Newport Gwent Dragons.
On the third occasion the sides have met in the opening fixture, it was the visitors who broke the deadlock through a Nick Macleod penalty, before Pat Howard scored their first try of the night on his senior debut.
But it didn’t take long for Ulster, chasing their first title in ten years, to bring themselves back into the lead, Lyttle, an early replacement for Craig Gilroy, going over first before a clever solo effort from Jacob Stockdale gave them the lead.
And maximum points were sealed after the break as Ruan Pienaar, Lyttle with his second, and Rob Herring touched over in a dominant second half performance.
Despite a lively start from Ulster, it was the visitors who got the first points on the board as Macleod kicked over after Roger Wilson was penalised for hands in the ruck.
The Dragons extended their lead five minutes later after a spell of good pressure on their hosts, Macleod producing a perfect cross-kick for Howard to touch the ball down over the line.
It was a first senior try for Lyttle to bring Ulster back into the half after a clever break by Pienaar, the debutant keeping cool to latch onto his teammate’s kick and scramble it over the line.
Ulster took the lead just five minutes later after sustained pressure on their visitors as Stockdale expertly kicked through the Dragons defence and touched down in the corner to give his side the advantage at the break.
Pienaar, who on Thursday announced he would be leaving the Kingspan at the end of the season, extended the Ulstermen’s lead within minutes of the restart, charging down a Dragons kick within the 22 allowing him to ease over the line.
An inspired performance from Stockdale saw him almost double his try tally just after the hour-mark, teeing himself up for the chase to the line before the ball bounced out in dangerous territory.
But it was Lyttle who scored his second of the game to give Ulster some breathing space, diving over in the corner after Les Kiss’ side took advantage of an overthrown Dragons lineout to seal the bonus point.
And it wasn’t long before the men in white got their fifth try of the night as co-captain Herring made use of a driving maul to dot over the line, to make it six wins in seven for Ulster when hosting Welsh opposition in the opening fixture.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final
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