IT’S the start of a new season for Ulster on Saturday (1pm, live on Viaplay) when they travel to face Zebre Parma in the BKT United Rugby Championship.
Dan McFarland’s side had a productive pre-season, rounded off with a 19-14 win over Glasgow Warriors in Cavan where they gave game-time to familiar and some unfamiliar faces.
That may have been of great benefit as they are without a host of players through injury this week including John Cooney, Marty Moore, Greg Jones, Eric O’Sullivan, Sean Reffell, James McCormick, Alan O’Connor and Luke Marshall.
Also missing are those Irish internationals who featured in the World Cup, plus South Africa’s Steven Kitshoff who will be in action for the Springboks against England later that night.
With the World Cup ongoing, the URC season begins a little later than usual, so Ulster fans have had a long wait to see their side back in competitive action since May’s defeat to Connacht in the playoffs.
If last season ended in disappointment, then Saturday’s opposition have had a major job on their hands to turn things around having finished bottom of the pile last term without a win to their name, but Ulster travel with ambitions of getting off to a good start at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
The last time they met, Ulster were 36-15 winners at Kingspan Stadium, scoring six tries in the process through Tom Stewart (two), Matty Rea, Callum Reid, Stewart Moore and John Andrew.
The Italian outfit will look to 22 year- old winger, Simone Gesi, was their top try scorer last season, while Matteo Nocera, fly-half, Tiff Eden, and back row Jake Polledri are others who have the ability to make a major impact if given the opportunity.
“We are thrilled to get going, its been a long pre-season, the boys enjoyed plenty of time off, and there is only so much training you can do before you need to play again," said Ulster defence coach, Jonny Bell.
"An away trip to Zebre is tough, they ran Leinster close last year and gave the Vodacom Bulls a scare too, so it’s going to be a competitive game. I know the squad are itching to get onto pitch."
Zebre’s record in the competition doesn’t make for pretty reading, however, with 21 defeats since beating Dragons back in April 2022 and are without a win over an Irish club since February 2018 when they came away from Galway with victory over Connacht.
Their last win over Ulster came back in 2017 on home turf, so they will hope to reverse this and score a first opening day win of any kind since 2018 against Southern Kings, but Ulster must go all the way back to 2013 since their last opening day defeat.
With the World Cup still ongoing, attention remains firming fixed on France, but for Ulster, their focus must be centred on Italy as they aim to maintain their run of opening day wins and get the season off to the best possible start.