Les Kiss’ Ulster take on a Scottish side for the second time in two weeks as Glasgow Warriors come calling at the Kingspan on Saturday in a crucial clash between fifth and sixth in the Guinness PRO12.
What’s at stake?
Both sides will be targeting a spot in the top four and a semi-final place, but Glasgow slipped out of the play-off places with a fairly one-sided loss to Scarlets at Scotstoun last week, while Kiss’ side sit sixth.
Ulster snapped a four-game losing streak with a four-try first-half blitz against Edinburgh in round 14, while Marcell Coetzee proved a revelation on his debut after nine months out with a knee injury.
Kiss’ side are now just three points behind Warriors, who are in turn three points adrift of Scarlets in fourth.
With a healthy gap to seventh-place Cardiff Blues, both sides will be looking up the table, with a win nearly essential to keep pace with the in-form foursome leading the way.
Team news (Ulster): Hat-trick hero for Ireland last week, Craig Gilroy is given a chance to stake his claim to an Ireland RBS 6 Nations wing berth when he faces Glasgow on Saturday.
Tommy Bowe will also be given a chance to shine on the other flank in a game bursting with top-class outside backs.
Darren Cave and Luke Marshall link up in the centres, with Springbok Ruan Pienaar starting at No. 9, while Ireland international Chris Henry skippers Ulster from openside.
Team news (Glasgow Warriors): Scotland back Peter Horne makes his return from ankle injury, starting at fly-half for Glasgow alongside Henry Pyrgos.
Rory Hughes also continues his injury comeback with a spot on the bench, new signing Brandon Thomson starts at full-back, veteran wing Sean Lamont starts on one wing, with Lee Jones on the other.
Townsend can field an all-international back-row in Simone Favaro, Rob Harley and Adam Ashe, with former Scotland Under-20 skipper Scott Cummings starting alongside Brian Alainu’uese in the engine room.
Gregor Townsend has been called into playing Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg at fly-half on occasion as Glasgow were forced to deal with Peter Horne’s absence.
But with Finn Russell away on Scotland duty, 23-cap stand-off or centre Horne has made a timely return – something Townsend feels could be influential for the Warriors’ pursuit of a top-four spot.
“Peter Horne is one of our hardest working players and a leader on and off the pitch, so his return will give everyone a boost,” Townsend explained.
“It’s a credit to our medical staff that Peter and Tjiuee Uanivi are both available for what is a crucial match
“Brandon Thomson has integrated really well since his arrival and showed a good level of physicality while playing for Stirling County at the weekend. He has a very good rugby brain and is a quick learner, and is relishing the opportunity to play for the club.”
Key battle: Luke Marshall v Mark Bennett
Test pair Luke Marshall and Mark Bennett face off in the centres for Ulster and Glasgow charged with providing the cutting edge in a crucial Guinness PRO12 clash.
If Marshall has the size advantage, then Bennett – an Olympic 7s silver-medallist – perhaps has the edge when it comes to speed.
But both are capable of busting the line, getting in behind a defence and turning a game on its head.
Whoever manages to exploit the carrying of their respective packs will have a major say on the winner at Kingspan.
Key stat: The Ulstermen have lost only once at Kingspan Stadium in their last nine Guinness PRO12 matches – to Munster in Round 7 – while Warriors have won their last four away games in all competitions since slipping up at Scarlets in the league on 5 November.
Did you know? Ulster beat Glasgow 22-17 at Scotstoun in round 4 and have not achieved a PRO12 season’s double over the Scotsmen since 2010/11.
Top points scorer: Paddy Jackson – 65
Top try scorer: Jacob Stockdale – 4
Top points scorer: Finn Russell – 48
Top try scorer: Tommy Seymour – 8
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 30, Ulster won 15, Warriors won 14, with 1 game drawn.
At Kingspan Stadium, 3pm Live on Sky Sports
Referee: Dan Jones (WRU, 4th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Davies (WRU), Paul Haycock (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Eddie Wigglesworth (IRFU)
TMO: Tim Hayes (WRU)
The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin on May 27, 2017. Tickets for the Guinness PRO12 Final are available via ticketmaster.ie with a limited number of great value €35 tickets still remaining. Or get in at the top level with Premium, starting at only €70. www.pro12rugby.com/final
Ulster jumped above Glasgow Warriors and into fifth in the Guinness PRO12 standings, after a thrilling performance at the Kingspan saw them emerge with a bonus-point 37-17 victory.
The hosts dominated the opening half, although after tries for Tommy Bowe and Sean Reidy, Brandon Thomson gave Glasgow some hope just before the interval on his first appearance in a Warriors jersey.
But two brilliant scores early in the second half from Jacob Stockdale and Ruan Pienaar gave Ulster the bonus point and knocked the wind out of Glasgow’s sails.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) February 18, 2017
And Scott Cummings’ late double was no more than a consolation, with Stockdale putting the gloss on the win for Ulster with three minutes remaining.
It was the hosts who drew first blood in the eighth minute, with Pienaar pointing to the posts after Glasgow don’t release at the breakdown, before striking the long-range penalty straight through the posts.
But the Warriors hit back with an extended period of pressure, Pete Horne cutting a brilliant line and coming up just short thanks to some heroic Ulster defence.
And after clearing the ball a wonderful breakaway move saw Les Kiss’ side burst 70 metres up the field, with Bowe in possession on the right wing – only debutant Thomson’s try-saving tackle preventing a score.
Ulster however continued to build the pressure deep in Glasgow territory, and from a scrum worked the ball out wide where Stockdale’s tipped pass gave Bowe a simple finish in the corner.
It was the 32-year-old Irish international’s 65th career try for Ulster, and his seventh against the Warriors in the Guinness PRO12, but Pienaar’s conversion attempt from the right sideline sailed wide.
A lengthy stoppage in play while Glasgow’s Lee Jones received treatment did not curb the hosts’ momentum, with a monstrous rolling maul on the half-hour mark giving them a penalty advantage.
And after wave after wave of attack, a beautifully executed inside ball from Pienaar caught Glasgow unawares, and released the powerful Reidy who scrambled over the whitewash.
The conversion from Pienaar was good this time, making the score 15-0 and giving the Warriors a mountain to climb.
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) February 18, 2017
But they did hit back on the stroke of half-time as Ulster’s defence was stretched after several phases inside the 22, and Thomson was there to finish off in the corner.
The full-back pulled his conversion attempt left of the uprights however as the clock ticked into the red, and Ulster’s onslaught continued after the break.
Pienaar notched up an early penalty, before two quick-fire tries effectively decided the contest before the hour mark.
First, Stockdale scythed through the Glasgow line to finish under the posts after some exceptional backline play from Ulster, and then the hosts scored one of the tries of the Guinness PRO12 season so far.
It was end-to-end stuff as Mark Bennett broke for the Warriors, but Bowe won the turnover before starting a length-of-the-field break with Reidy and Luke Marshall also heavily involved before Pienaar finished the move off to make it 30-5.
Glasgow went down to 14 when Rob Harley was shown a yellow for lifting his man past the vertical, but after Cummings charged down Pienaar’s box kick and beat Paul Marshall to the ball to score, the young lock – Scotland under-20s’ skipper last year – ran a hard line through the Ulster defence to touch down again.
Stockdale had the final say however for the hosts, running in their fifth of the afternoon after collecting his own chipped kick through.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017, 27th May, Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Ticket Information: Fans can still avail of an exclusive number of €30 tickets. Book via www.ticketmaster.ie. Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final