WITH the European Champions Cup taking a back seat again, it’s back to domestic action for Ulster on Friday night when they host Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium (7.35pm, live on Premier Sports).
Ulster have played just one United Rugby Championship (URC) game since the start of December, that ending in a frustrating loss to Munster at Thomond Park at the beginning of this month, so the focus will be on getting that campaign back on track as they look to find some consistency to mount a challenge this year.
Currently, they sit third in the standings, but with Covid ripping through the league over the past few months, there are rearranged fixtures to be completed throughout the competition and Ulster now face into a busy run of games that coincide with the start of the Six Nations.
That Ulster are well represented in the Irish squad is a huge plus, but will also mean that more players than usual will be unavailable over the course of the internationals so the squad will be tested in the coming weeks.
That is especially true in the back where they are forced to get a little creative with positional switches.
Rob Lyttle is set to make his 50th appearance as he is named to start on the left wing alongside Ethan McIlroy who makes a positional switch to full-back, and Craig Gilroy who comes in on the right.
Angus Curtis retains his starting berth at inside centre, and partners Ben Moxham in the Ulster midfield. Nathan Doak and Billy Burns will form the half-back pairing.
John Andrew comes in to start at hooker, joining Eric O’Sullivan at loosehead and Marty Moore at tighthead prop.
Sam Carter comes into the second row to pair up with captain, Alan O’Connor. Greg Jones is selected at blindside flanker, while Marcus Rea makes a positional switch to openside. Duane Vermeulen completes the base of the pack.
🚨 𝙏𝙚𝙖𝙢 𝘼𝙣𝙣𝙤𝙪𝙣𝙘𝙚𝙢𝙚𝙣𝙩 🚨— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) January 27, 2022
The Ulster match-day squad to host @scarlets_rugby tomorrow evening has been selected ⤵️
Full story ➡️ https://t.co/NlayEKdtAV #URC | #ULSvSCA | #SUFTUM ⚪️🔴 pic.twitter.com/oAwDYHwDMb
Gareth Milasinovich has returned from his short-term loan to Saracens and is named on the bench with Brad Roberts, Jack McGrath, Mick Kearney and David McCann to provide the forward options.
David Shanahan, Ian Madigan and Aaron Sexton are the back line replacements.
“We have five games now, with only two gap weeks, so our planning at the moment is much more match focussed,” said head coach Dan McFarland.
“For the Six Nations when the international players go away, you’re obviously left with a smaller group, so the responsibility is on us to ensure the players we have drive the performance, drive the training and drive our attitude to the games.
“In the Six Nations period, you might only have two games and you would have four weeks where you aren’t playing.
“The gaps in between games and as such, the focus turns away from match prep to development, but given we have five games now with two gap weeks, it’s much more match-focussed.
“We’re not far off having to be (selection) creative in the backs, with a few long-term injured… but in terms of the forwards we’re in a pretty good place, the guys are on good form, they’re playing well so there’ll be a big onus on them going into this block of games to continue their strong form.”
Strong form will be required as the URC hits a key period where progress in the competition could hinge on the upcoming results.
Friday’s opposition arrive in Belfast having played just six URC games with Covid postponements playing havoc with their schedule, while their European campaign ended in disappointment as they finished bottom of Pool B and will now only have domestic matters to plan for.
🚨 TEAM ANNOUNCEMENT / CYHOEDDIAD TÎM 🚨— Scarlets Rugby (@scarlets_rugby) January 27, 2022
Here's our 23 to take on @UlsterRugby at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday
👊 Daf named as captain
1️⃣ First start of the season for Steff Thomas
Dyma ein 23 i wynebu Ulster yn stadiwm Kingspan ar nos Wener#ULSvSCA #URC pic.twitter.com/woPWdxldI2
Ulster are of course in a much stronger position, but that does not guarantee victory on Friday and a strong performance will pivotal to claim victory.
“I’m more interested in our performances and the guys who are going out there pitch play with the same positivity and urgency we demonstrated in Europe, the results will look after themselves,” McFarland added.
“If we play close to the level we’ve been playing at, we’ll be very tough to beat.”
Following last weekend’s win over Clermont Auvergne, Ulster finished second in Pool A and were ‘rewarded’ with a last 16 tie against defending champions Toulouse who they will meet over two legs.
Ulster had to withstand a late Clermont surge as they suffered a few technical defence issues, but McFarland remained happy and is looking forward to the challenge against Europe’s top club in the next round.
“It was combination of their brilliance, and a couple of technical elements in our defence that we didn’t get right at the end of the game,” he reflected.
“If you’re slightly off the mark, they’ll cut you to pieces.
“Toulouse are a giant of European rugby. It’s the kind of game you envisage playing Toulouse in a final, so playing them in the round of 16 is going to be a huge challenge. We played Toulouse last year and have had a number of really good games against them. It will just be a fantastic two games of rugby.”