IN the past, a home fixture against Benetton may have been viewed as an opportunity for maximum points, but Ulster know they will have to be at their best if they want to maintain their winning start to the season when they host the resurgent Italians at Kingspan Stadium this evening (Friday, 7.35pm, live on BBC2).
Dan McFarland’s charges overcame the other Italian club, Zebre, last weekend with a 36-3 win at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi as they claimed maximum points for the second week running.
However, Benetton arrive in Belfast with two wins from two having defeated Edinburgh and DHL Stormers, while last season they picked up the Rainbow Cup.
With momentum firmly behind them, Benetton will have high hopes of maintaining their excellent run and Ulster forwards coach Roddy Grant has warned that this is a game in which they need to be at their best if they don’t want to come unstuck.
“The pleasing thing is two bonus point wins and we are in a results-based profession, so that’s all-important,” he said.
“Certainly, they haven’t been the most polished performances against Glasgow and Zebra, so there’s plenty to work on. The aim is to take a large step forward this week in a big challenge.
“They (Benetton) jackal at the breakdown and there is a big contest there, so they are similarities. They are very passionate as all Italian sides are.
“They are on a hell of a winning streak and have won silverware there, so we are expecting a really tough game.”
Silverware has eluded Ulster since 2007 so the fact that Marco Bortolami’s side has done that recently is warning enough as to the direction the Treviso club is headed.
Grant believes this is a game that could be decided up front and says the home team must rise to that challenge.
“The results speak for themselves,” he said of the visitors.
“They didn’t win a game in the (last league) season and then the Rainbow Cup comes along and they won everything; then they have had a great start to with this season: two (wins) from two, unbeaten and playing really good rugby.
“It’s a big challenge as they are a good side and have good players. At the set-piece, they pose a threat there, but our mindset is that we’re coming to give them crack, but it’s a challenge and we are preparing accordingly.”
It will be a special night for Rob Herring who will become the seventh player to reach the 200-appearance milestone for Ulster, having been named to start at hooker.
Herring has been named alongside Andrew Warwick and Tom O’Toole in the front row. Sam Carter comes in to partner Alan O’Connor, and Carter will also skipper the side.
Matty Rea is named at blindside flanker, with Nick Timoney at openside, and David McCann completing the base of the pack at Number Eight.
The back line that started last Saturday against Zebre has been retained. Will Addison is selected at full-back with Ethan McIlroy and Craig Gilroy on the wings. Stewart Moore and James Hume will form the centre partnership, and Nathan Doak and Billy Burns are named at scrum-half and out-half.
🚨 𝙏𝙚𝙖𝙢 𝘼𝙣𝙣𝙤𝙪𝙣𝙘𝙚𝙢𝙚𝙣𝙩— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) October 7, 2021
Here is your Ulster squad to face @BenettonRugby tomorrow evening @KingspanStadium in Round 3️⃣ of the #URC 👇
2️⃣0️⃣0️⃣ appearances for @robert_herring2!
Full story ➡️ https://t.co/9eyyC8aOE5
#ULSvBEN | #SUFTUM ⚪️🔴 pic.twitter.com/NDUsRHy5TO
The forward replacements will be Brad Roberts, Callum Reid, Ross Kane, Mick Kearney and Sean Reidy, and the back line options are David Shanahan, Mike Lowry and Ben Moxham.
Grant paid tribute to Herring who he says is a huge figure around the club and says his fellow South Africa native has so many aspects to his game the makes him a top player.
“Anyone who gets to 200 professional games is a huge achievement, then just 200 games with Ulster is awesome,” he insisted.
“That just speaks volumes for him as a player. He’s obviously an Irish international as well, but he’s a great guy, a good leader who works really hard. He’s a pleasure to coach and like all hookers, he plays a key part in the forward zone: scrum, set-piece, maul. He’s obviously dynamic about the pitch as well in that he’s not just a set-piece hooker, so fingers crossed he can (play) as it’s a really good reflection on him as a player, a pro and a person.”
With John Cooney still out with a hamstring injury, Doak continues at scrum-half and Grant says he has been impressed with how he has slotted in seamlessly since being handed the jersey.
“It’s been really pleasing for him that he’s come in and done well,” he added.
“At the weekend there, he did a really good job. His kicking was excellent, box-kicking was excellent. There is no doubt he has talent and it’s really good he’s played well when he’s been in the Ulster jersey.
“The big thing is gaining experience and then just being consistent in your actions.”