VICTORY over Sale in the European Champions Cup last weekend that saw them advance into the knockout stage of the competition was exactly the shot in the arm Ulster needed after a sticky spell, so backing it up with another home win this evening (Friday, 7.35pm, live on BBC) against DHL Stormers in the United Rugby Championship would confirm corner has been turned.
Last season, Ulster lost narrowly on two occasions to the eventual champions in the regular season and also in the playoff semi-final in South Africa
This is the first meeting of the teams in Belfast and Dan McFarland's side will not be short of motivation given last season's meetings and also with league points vital as they have slipped to fourth in the standings with just one win in the last four URC games, seven points adrift of tonight's opposition who sit in second.
Ulster are yet to lose to South African opposition on home soil since their introduction in the competition, while Stormers are without a league win in the URC since October, although they have enjoyed the upper hand on Irish clubs in their last four meetings.
An interesting subplot to tonight's fixture is current Stormers captain and World Cup-winning Springbok prop Steven Kitshoff set to link up with Ulster after this year's Rugby World Cup.
“It’s clear that Ulster is on an exciting journey, and it’s one that I want to be a part of," he said at the time of the announcement of his impending switch to the Kingspan Stadium.
"With some big wins recently, it’s my ambition to be part of the squad that takes that next step and secures silverware for the province.
“I’m really looking forward to making the move to Belfast next year. It’s going to be a change, but I know, from everything I’ve heard, that when I line out for the first time in front of a home crowd at Kingspan Stadium in an Ulster jersey, it’s going to be a really special moment.”
𝙏𝙀𝘼𝙈 𝙉𝙀𝙒𝙎— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) January 26, 2023
Your Ulster side to face DHL Stormers tomorrow at Kingspan stadium in the @URCOfficial 👊
🎟️ Tickets available: https://t.co/OXaNkJGADv pic.twitter.com/0p68RM7Mib
This is in the future, so it's the here and now that counts for Ulster who are still in reasonable shape despite their difficult run that began with an away defeat to Leinster in early December.
Momentum is key and the home support will certainly benefit their ambitions of making it back-to-back wins.
In terms of the starting side, Ulster Head Coach Dan McFarland has made one change to the front row from last week's win against Sale, with loosehead prop Eric O’Sullivan coming in alongside Tom Stewart and Jeff Toomaga-Allen.
Alan O’Connor will lead the side once again, with club captain Iain Henderson in camp with the Ireland squad ahead of the upcoming Guinness Six Nations.
Sam Carter retains his place at lock alongside O’Connor, with Academy product Harry Sheridan keeping his place at blindside flanker after an impressive home debut last weekend against Sale Sharks. Last weekend’s Heineken Star of the Match, Nick Timoney, continues at openside alongside Duane Vermeulen at Number 8.
Nathan Doak and Billy Burns are also rewarded for their performances last week as they pair up again at 9 and 10 respectively.
James Hume retains his place at outside centre, and he is joined by Stewart Moore at inside centre, who comes in for Ireland-bound Stuart McCloskey.
The back three has just one change, with Academy graduate Ben Moxham coming in for Jacob Stockdale. Winger Rob Lyttle will hope to continue his try-scoring form and Mike Lowry completes the starting XV.
"They (Stormers) are going to be a very difficult animal to what we faced last week," said Assistant Coach, Jonny Bell.
"They are powerful, but move really fast around the pitch, so we need to control the ball well when we have it and make sure that we are smart defensively."