A new era is set to dawn at Ulster Rugby on Friday night as Jono Gibbes prepares for his first game in charge against the Southern Kings.
It’s all change in Belfast since Ulster’s loss at Leinster in their last Guinness PRO14 match with Les Kiss leaving a week ago.
And the Kings will hope to spoil Gibbes’ parade and win for the first time this season.
What’s at stake? For Ulster, this game has taken on extra significance in the wake of Kiss’ departure and Gibbes’ arrival.
Yet they still look on course for the play-offs with Gibbes taking over a side that sits third in Conference A, 11 points clear of fifth-placed Benetton Rugby.
The Kings are still seeking their first ever Guinness PRO14 win but they have noticeably improved as the season has gone on – especially in attack, where they look extremely potent.
A win would see them close the gap on sixth-placed Dragons, who are currently ten points up the road.
Furthermore, Joy Neville will be in the middle with the whistle, the first woman to referee a Guinness PRO14 game.
Team news (Ulster): With several established names away with the Six Nations, the next few weeks presents a chance for some new faces to put up their hands.
Alan O’Connor captains Ulster for the first time in Gibbes’ first game in charge while fly-half Johnny McPhillips makes his first start after four appearances from the bench.
There is experience as well as youth in this Ulster side with Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy returning from an injury lay-off while John Cooney will guide young McPhillips from scrum-half.
Team news (Southern Kings): It’s all about pace in the electric Southern Kings backline with the rapid Masixole Banda and Anthonie Volmink selected to join Yax Penxe.
The Kings have made three changes from the side which lost to the Toyota Cheetahs three weeks ago with centre Burton Klaasen in for Harlon Klaasen.
Talking Points: It’s been a tough few weeks at Ulster in the aftermath of Les Kiss’ departure but there is a determination to put things right as we approach the final third of the campaign.
Gibbes has taken the reins in Belfast and he faces a tough opening game against a dangerous Kings side.
Lock Alan O’Connor, who captains the side, knows it will be a battle but expects the squad to dig deep.
“They ran us a bit close for comfort over there and the Kings have also run a few good teams close like the Scarlets,” he says.
“It’s around 30 degrees over there at the minute and hopefully that will be a factor for us.
“They haven’t won any and we have to make sure we put that doubt into them early and get the win.”
The Kings are missing coach Deon Davids, who has not travelled due to illness, but interim coach Barend Pieterse is optimistic they can emerge from the Emerald Isle with a win.
“I feel we have continued to grow as a squad and as a team and has shown that we do not have to step aside for anyone in this competition,” he said.
“That first win will come, the important thing for us will be to play for it with determination and not frantic panic.”
Key Battle – Rob Lyttle v Yaw Penxe: Rob Lyttle has come up against some fine wingers in his young Guinness PRO14 career but it is unlikely he will have faced anyone quite as quick as Yaw Penxe.
While the European sides have been fighting it out in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, Penxe has been adding to his burgeoning reputation with a pair of impressive displays against the Cheetahs.
The Kings may not have won this season but they have been every entertaining and running rugby is likely to be a feature of this contest with space out wide inevitable.
If Lyttle can contain him then the Kings may struggle to score points while he will want to be at in the thick of it at the other end of the pitch.
Key Stat: Ulster Rugby’s last six matches in all competitions have all been won by the home side on the day
Did you know? Southern Kings are still without a victory in the Guinness PRO14 this season, their four league points came in successive encounters at home in November, two of those in their dramatic late defeat by Ulster.
Ulster: Charles Piutau, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle, Jonny McPhillips, John Cooney, Andrew Warwick, John Andrew, Wiehahn Herbst, Alan O’Connor (c), Kieran Treadwell, Marcus Rea, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Kyle McCall, Rodney Ah You, Matthew Dalton, Chris Henry, Jonny Stewart, Darren Cave, Louis Ludik.
Southern Kings: Masixole Banda, Yaw Penxe, Berton Klaasen, Luzuko Vulindlu, Anthonie Volmink, Martin Du Toit, Rowan Gouws, Schalk Ferreira, Michael Willemse (c), Pieter Scholtz, Stephan Greeff, Bobby de Wee, Andisa Ntsila, Martinus Burger, Ruaan Lerm.
Replacements: Stephan Coetzee, Johan Smith, Dayan van der Westhuizen, Jurie Van Vuuren, Eital Bredenkamp, Godlen Masimla, Benhard Janse van Rensburg, Harlon Klaasen
Officials: Referee: Joy Neville, AR1: Kieran Barry (IRFU), AR2: Shane Kierans (IRFU), TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)
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 can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie
Craig Gilroy scored a hat-trick as Ulster got off to a fine start under head coach Jono Gibbes, while Joy Neville made Guinness PRO14 history on an eventful night in Belfast.
Neville became the league’s first ever female referee but she shares the headlines a rampant Ulster after their nine-try win against the Southern Kings.
Gilroy was clinical and took his tries brilliantly while Stuart McCloskey, Johnny McPhillips, Rob Lyttle (2), Kieran Treadwell and Darren Cave also crossed.
The Kings remain winless in the Guinness PRO14 while Ulster stay third and keep up with top two Glasgow Warriors and Leinster.
Ulster started quickly as Gilroy burst through from just ten metres out after an incisive pass from John Cooney off the back of a rolling maul.
The Kings responded with a Masixole Banda penalty as they gradually steadied the ship following a rapid Ulster start.
But the hosts were slick and impressive in attack and added a second try just before the 20th minute as centre McCloskey powered over.
It was not all smiles for Ulster as key full-back Charles Piutau went off with a rib injury just minutes later, replaced by Louis Ludik.
It did not get any better before the half as flanker Sean Reidy also limped out with Chris Henry coming on.
But Gilroy grabbed his second in almost identical fashion to his first as he picked up a perfectly weighted Cooney pass to power through.
The Kings needed a response after the break but Ulster quickly confirmed the bonus point as McPhillips sprinting clear for his first try.
With a spring in their step, Ulster’s confidence grew and Lyttle powered down the left wing to score in the corner.
But the night belonged to Gilroy, who was released by a looping Cooney pass and just held off the desperate Kings defenders to dot down.
Lyttle added his second in style, picking up a loose ball and springing 70 metres to score in the corner – displaying superb pace.
However, it came at a cost as he pulled a hamstring and was forced off injured – Ulster’s third casualty of the night.
The Kings scored the best try as Harlon Klaasen finished off a length-of-the-field move with ten minutes left.
But Ulster had the last laugh with Treadwell powering over and Cave sliding over for their ninth of the match.
08 Feb 2018
08 Feb 2018