IT’S a new season and a new format as Ulster get set to begin the United Rugby Championship with a home fixture against Glasgow on Friday evening (7.35pm, live on Premier Sport).
The fans will return in their numbers to the Kingspan Stadium with up to 15,000 permitted to file through the turnstiles for the new league campaign that has been expanded from 14 to 16 clubs with the extra made up from added South African sides.
Ulster will play their Irish rivals on a home and away basis in one of four ‘Shield Pools’ with the top of each of these four mini groups guaranteed a Champions Cup place, but play the remaining teams just once so Friday will be the only time Dan McFarland’s side will face Glasgow unless they reunite in the playoffs.
The playoffs will comprise of the top eight teams with first playing eighth in the overall table, second versus seventh etc, with the remaining four Champions Cup places going to the best-placed four clubs (including the South African) who did not top their domestic Shield Pool group.
It means that there will be huge competition from the word go this season with Ulster determined to get off on the right foot, going to build on what was a relatively good campaign despite finishing up empty-handed as Leinster once again claimed the silverware.
“We are setting off on a new competition and there is plenty of excitement to go around,” said McFarland.
“Our focus is now on the new competition and a new format where apart from the derby games (inter-provincials) we only get to play each team once.
“We get one shot at Glasgow this year and our minds have to be totally focussed on that game because we are fully aware of the history between the clubs. We have suffered at the hands of what is a really good club on a number of occasions and we don’t want that to happen.
“Over the past number of years the Irish teams have been up around the top of this competition so that makes it difficult. Secondly, the South African teams coming in will make it a lot more competitive this year.
“I’m not going to say last year was an anomaly - it was different - but you still have to win your games.
“I think this year is going to be much more competitive. If you don’t win your one-off games then it can be out of your control whether you finish ahead of them.”
Ethan McIlroy has been named at full-back for this evening's game, and starts with Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune on the left and right wings. James Hume and Stuart McCloskey will make up the centre pairing, and John Cooney and Billy Burns are the starting half-backs for this game.
Brad Roberts will make his first competitive start at hooker, with Andrew Warwick and Marty Moore packing down either side of him in the front row. Sam Carter will captain the side and is partnered in the second row with Alan O’Connor. In the back row, Greg Jones is named at blindside flanker, with Reidy at openside and Nick Timoney at Number Eight.
Duane Vermeulen has penned a deal with Ulster, but the World Cup-winning number eight will not arrive in Belfast for a number of weeks.
The Springbok’s addition will bolster the squad in the absence on Marcell Coetzee who returned to his homeland at the end of last season, but McFarland is happy with the progress the club has made and says there will be no drastic changes to their approach this term.
“I think the way we have approached it is that we are really happy with the philosophy of how we play,” he said.
“We have a style that is built around collective speed and we are very happy with that. It’s served us well over the last three years and has shown we can win big games with that.
“We have looked at the physical way we want to play and focussed on that over the pre-season and tried to find ways to push it.
“There are also aspects about our game management and ability to manage the middle third to stop teams getting into our 22. We also think our ability to be more efficient or ruthless in the opposition’s 22 is where we are looking to improve.
“We have tweaked our attacking style with ‘Sops’ (Dan Soper) coming in. He has a lot of similar ideas to how we played previously, but also has new stuff that’s done in there too.”
Those tweaks will hopefully yield the results and drive Ulster towards a trophy this year having found themselves at the business end on a consistent basis over the last few years. However, competition will be fierce and McFarland accepts that most other clubs will have the same mindset, meaning the season ahead is likely to be full of excitement, twists and turns.
“The bottom line is we want to win a trophy, but that was the goal last year and the year before,” he stressed.
“That may not be the same for every team as some may say they want to make the playoffs and that’s fair enough as it is where they are in their development cycle.
“We are at the stage where we have done a lot of playoff games and now we want to win a trophy, but there are a lot of other good teams out there who also want to win a trophy.”
ULSTER v Glasgow: (15-9) Ethan McIlroy, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney; (1-8) Andrew Warwick, Brad Roberts, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Sam Carter (Capt.), Greg Jones, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Mick Kearney, Matty Rea, Nathan Doak, Mike Lowry, Will Addison.