Guinness Pro-14: Ulster v Benetton
(Kingspan Stadium, tonight, 8.15pm, live on Premier Sport)
ULSTER’S prospects for the forthcoming season have been dealt a blow with the news that Irish international Will Addison is set to be sidelined for several months after suffering a set-back in his rehab from a long-term back injury.

Addison missed Ireland’s three Six Nations games earlier this year after suffering a calf injury and he has recently undergone surgery in a bid to cure a long-standing back compliant.

Ulster’s assessment is that he will be unavailable for “several months” which means he won’t feature for Ireland in the remainder of this year’s Six Nations and the forthcoming November series.

Dan McFarland’s men begin the new domestic campaign this Friday when they host Benetton in the opening round of the Guinness Pro14 at the Kingspan Stadium.

As well as Addison, McFarland will be without fly-half Billy Burns (calf) and centre Stuart McCloskey (elbow) for Friday night’s game. Both players sustained their injuries during Ulster’s Champions Cup quarter-final defeat at Toulouse in September.

Prop Tom O’Toole is also ruled out with an ankle injury picked up in the Pro14 final defeat to Leinster.

They join Andrew Warwick (hip), Luke Marshall (hip), Angus Curtis (knee), and Robert Baloucoune (hamstring) on the injury-list.

Despite picking up a number of injuries since the resumption of rugby and the subsequent conclusion of last year’s competitions, Ulster coach Roddy Grant believes the games against Leinster and Toulouse and last-gap win over Edinburgh will stand to them.

“I would much rather be in the position where we have been a finalist against a really good Leinster side and played away to Toulouse in a quarter-final, than having not played for the last few weeks,” said Grant.

“I'd much rather take that for my mental wellness and my confidence. If I was a player that would be my take on it - we had a great season and we now have a great opportunity to kick on.

“Who knows how the season will pan out in terms of results but we are battle-hardened, ready and good to go. We want to be competing like we did and there are a lot of things we want to improve on.”
Friday’s game will be Ulster’s first home game since their 20-10 win over the Toyota Cheetahs on Saturday, February 22.

600 supporters will be permitted to attend tonight’s league opener as part of a pilot scheme

600 supporters will be permitted to attend tonight’s league opener as part of a pilot scheme

Speaking before Tuesday’s announcement that 600 fans will be permitted to attend the game, Grant stressed that it is up to the players to find a rhythm regardless of whether fans can attend or not.

“Rhythm is really important in rugby these days,” said Grant.

“We've had a weekend off and hopefully we can make that rhythm count against (Benetton) Treviso, who haven't had games.

“Either way, though, it is a tough game. They have a great squad packed full of internationals, and it's always a hard game against them.

“It is great playing at your home ground, whether there are crowds or not. It has really struck me how much it means to the players and supporters to have rugby at the Kingspan.

“The atmosphere there is one of the best in the world but if there is no crowd then we have to drive our own atmosphere. That has been a focus for us in the five games since we came back and that will be no different on Friday.”

Grant also feels that Ireland U20 captain David McCann can make his presence felt at the Kingspan this season.

The flanker has yet to make his senior debut for Ulster, but Grant feels it is only a matter of time before he is pushing for a place in the squad.

“He (McCann) has certainly got the attributes and led Ireland well in the U20s,” added Grant.

“He is still a young player and there are things for him to work on, especially being a flanker, but that always comes with age. You obviously want a lot of involvements and you want those involvements to be positive.

“You need to have experience but he has got the ability. He moves well and is coordinated. You can tell how guys move that they are naturally athletic.

“I am really enjoying working with him. He's an intelligent guy, a pleasure to coach and seems receptive to picking things up quickly. We'll see if he gets a chance at this level.”