Conference B rivals Ulster and Dragons go head-to-head in a crucial contest on Friday night, with the Welsh side desperate to end a long winless away run.
It is 35 successive games since the Dragons last tasted victory on the road in the Guinness PRO14 and ordinarily, Ulster is one of the toughest places to go.
But with players preparing to disappear for international duty, this is sure to be closely-fought contest in Belfast between two sides in need of a win.
What’s at stake?
Ulster might be fifth in Conference B but they are only three points off second-placed Scarlets while the Dragons are a place behind but seven points further back, meaning only a win will see them keep up with pack.
Scoring points has been a problem for Bernard Jackman’s men, who have accumulated the second-fewest in the league this season.
However, Ulster have conceded the third-most though, making this a potential thriller.
Team News (Ulster): Academy prospect Robert Baloucoune will make his Ulster debut against the Dragons as part of a youthful looking side.
🎬 Robert Baloucoune will make his senior debut tomorrow night against Dragons!
Good luck Robert! 🙌 pic.twitter.com/FSUaqfbY6X
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) 25 October 2018
The Ireland 7s speedster is one of three academy players in the starting line-up, with full-back Michael Lowry and prop Eric O’Sullivan also selected.
There is a welcome return for Australia international winger Henry Speight, who picked up a knee injury in September, while Will Addison, fresh from his first Ireland call-up, partners Stuart McCloskey in midfield.
O’Sullivan has experience alongside him in the front row in the shape of Rory best and Marty Moore, while Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy also get the nod.
Team News (Dragons): On the same day it was announced he was back at the club, Jason Tovey is handed the No.10 jersey for the Dragons.
Tovey is the record points-scorer for the region, with 951 in all competitions, with his best return of 215 points coming for the Men of Gwent in season 2013-14.
The 29-year-old made 117 appearances for the Dragons during 2007-12 and 2013-2016, with a year sabbatical to Cardiff Blues in between, before joining Edinburgh first on loan in 2016.
Tovey is one of ten changes for the Dragons, with wings Daf Howells and Will Talbot-Davies included along with six changes in the pack.
Harri Keddie makes his first appearance of the season while Nic Cudd, Richard Hibbard, Lloyd Fairbrother and Matthew Screech all come in.
Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman said: “It’s a tough place to go.
“They are one of the best-supported teams, it’s a class stadium and it’s a unique place historically where they love their rugby.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) 25 October 2018
“Ulster are ambitious and have always recruited well. They have a new coach, who I know well, and had a lots of wins at the start of the season when they closed out tights games.
“They got well-beaten by Racing last weekend in Europe, in terms of the scoreboard, but some of the rugby they played was very entertaining and ambitious.
“They are a team that keeps the ball more than any other in the competition so we are going to have to defend well and kick well.
Jackman added: “Last year during international periods we drew with Ulster at home and drew with Glasgow.
“We want to get points now over this period. It’s a real opportunity for players to step up and put down a marker in terms of their position in squad.”
Key battle: Johnny McPhillips v Jason Tovey
The spotlight will be on Jason Tovey and the veteran fly-half has an interesting match-up against Ulster’s Johnny McPhillips.
Tovey might be a Guinness PRO14 veteran and reliable points-scorer but he could well be rusty after a spell in the Welsh Premiership – and McPhillips is a classy operator.
The pressure is on Ulster to avoid their first home defeat to the Dragons since 2008 and McPhillips will be trusted to unlock a Dragons defence which Tovey will lead.
Who comes out on top in their match-up is likely to decide which team emerges successful.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) 24 October 2018
Key fact: Dragons are in the midst of the worst-ever away losing run in the history of the Championship, 35 successive defeats on their travels since beating Benetton in Italy in March 2015.
Did you know? The Ulstermen were defeated in their most recent match in the Guinness PRO14 at Kingspan Stadium but have not suffered successive home defeats in the Championship since December 2010.
Ulster: Michael Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Henry Speight; Johnny McPhillips, David Shanahan, Eric O’Sullivan, Rory Best (captain), Marty Moore, Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee
Replacements: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, A lanO’Connor, Greg Jones, Johnny Stewart, Angus Kernohan, Craig Gilroy
Dragons: Jordan Williams, Daf Howells, Adam Warren, Jarryd Sage, Will Talbot-Davies, Jason Tovey, Rhodri Williams; Brok Harris, Richard Hibbard (c), Lloyd Fairbrother, Matthew Screech, Lewis Evans, Huw Taylor, Nic Cudd, Harrison Keddie.
Replacements: Rhys Lawrence, Aaron Jarvis, Ryan Bevington, Joe Davies, Taine Basham, Tavis Knoyle, Jack Dixon, Zane Kirchner
TV: Live on Premier Sports and TG4
At Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, 7.55pm.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR, 82nd competition game). Assistant Referees: Gianluca Gnecchi (FIR), John Carvill (IRFU). Citing Commissioner: Wayne Sheridan (IRFU). TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)
Stuart McCloskey’s second-half double was enough to quell a Dragons Rugby fightback and secure a first Guinness PRO14 win in four for Ulster Rugby.
Dan McFarland’s man began at pace and got the game’s first tries through Henry Speight and Dave Shanahan before Huw Taylor replied.
Electric full-back Michael Lowry stole in before the break and after the interval McCloskey grabbed his first to register the bonus point.
Jarryd Sage powered over to threaten a late comeback but McCloskey had the last laugh, putting the seal on a five-try win.
Ulster started on the front foot with a fervent home crowd in support and were rewarded for their efforts on seven minutes as Johnny McPhillips got the scoreboard ticking with a penalty.
It didn’t take long to get the next score, with McPhillips playing from advantage and releasing Speight down the left, the Australian left with an easy run-in to spring over the line.
An even better try was to come, with centre Will Addison bursting out of his own half and eating up the metres before offloading to Shanahan on his left – the scrum-half left with little to do on his way to the tryline.
Dragons were in the game though and got their first five-pointer after a spell of pressure, centre with Adam Warren breaking through a tackle into the 22 and Taylor subsequently muscling over.
The hosts were finding their attacking flow and scored another superb try just before the break, full-back Lowry displaying some lightning-fast stepping to dart through the defence and dot the ball down.
With the score at 24-13 at half-time both sides continued to entertain in the second half, with McCloskey grabbing the crucial try from short distance in the corner on 49 minutes.
The Welsh region weren’t going to lie down though and just after the hour-mark pushed for a response, eventually getting the ball over the line but being pulled back for an unfortunate knock-on.
The try did come on 67 minutes and from an attacking scrum inside the Ulster 22, with fly-half Jason Tovey deceiving the defence and playing in Sage, Addison making a firm tackle but unable to stop the powerful centre.
At 29-18 down Bernard Jackman’s men continued to press in the final ten minutes but were undone by a Jordy Murphy turnover at the breakdown – Kieran Treadwell busting out of tackles in midfield and then galloping across the turf before playing in McCloskey.