United Rugby Championship: Ulster v Connacht

(Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 7.35pm, live on BBC & TG4)

IT’S the start of a new United Rugby Championship (URC) campaign for Ulster this Saturday as they open with an inter-provincial clash against Connacht.

Last season, Ulster reached the semi-finals of the competition having finished third in the table after the regular season, but were undone in the semi-final by eventual champions, the DHL Stormers, as they fell to a last-gasp try and conversion when the clock was in the red in South Africa.

That elusive piece of silverware was oh so close, but Dan McFarland’s charges have simply had to dust themselves down and reset for a new season where the goal will be the same.

There has been comings and goings over the summer for Ulster with six arrives and as many departures.

New Zealand prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen is the most high-profile new arrival, joined by Frank Bradshaw (lock), Sean Reffell (back row), Michael McDonald (scrum-half), Jake Flannery (fullback) and Shane O’Brien (fullback), while Jack McGrath, Ross Kane, Brad Roberts, Mick Kearney, David O’Connor and Conor Rankin have all left the Kingspan Stadium.

“Every year, it feels we are getting better, and making improvements – and that includes exciting new players coming through,” said team captain Iain Henderson ahead of the new season.

“Ensuring the guys that have been around a bit longer, like myself, are keeping driving that is important, and we want to keep getting better.

“The new guys are superb – the effort, skill level and professionalism – I couldn’t fault any of that. We are right behind our support staff, and everyone in the organisation, as we work together to hopefully ensure we can take that one extra step next year.”

That challenge has been made greater with the including of the South African clubs to the expanded competition last season and whilst they took a little time to find their feet, it was two of the new sides who would contest the final.

The Southern Hemisphere proved to be something of a fortress with the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian clubs all struggling on their travels, so the onus will be on learning from those long trips south and finding a way to gain the upper hand this season.

“At the start of last season, they started in a way that they wouldn’t have wanted to,” Henderson accepts.

“We had a chat our side in Kingspan that we shouldn’t be fooled by this, as it wasn’t a true representation of how they are going play and end up when they found their feet.

“With how strong they finished, and how difficult they were to overcome at home that was something that from the start of the season might have seemed shocking. But we know the quality of South Africa as a rugby nation, and the clubs individually are very good too.

“That extra dynamic has brought another level of difficulty to the league, which I think is exciting.”

It is a more traditional rival for the opener this weekend with Connacht in town and Ulster will be keen to get off on the right foot.

They were successful against the westerners on home turf last time out, but fell to a comprehensive loss in Dublin last autumn.

Andy Friend’s side have the capability to cause any team in the competition problems and Ulster is no different.

The Irish derbies can take a life of their own, so therefore this weekend’s opening fixture is one where both teams will know there will be no easing-in process.

Henderson expects a typically tough examination and has challenged his team-mates to lay down a marker early.

“It’s an exciting one to start – talk about hitting the ground running,” he agreed.

“In terms of pre-season, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch it from the sidelines. I’ve been doing my rehab at the side of the pitch, and the intensity at which they are training at is something that they are really going after.

“It’s about ensuring that we hit the ground running, and don’t look sluggish in the first game.

“The intensity that an inter-pro brings is something that you can’t sit back and wait to come to you.

“Playing Connacht first-up especially, it’ll be about who will throw the first punch, and who’s going to come out and start the game. That’ll be something we’ll be wary of, and I look forward to seeing who does it.”