Friday: Ulster v Stormers, Kingspan Stadium, 7.35 (Live on RTÉ, Premier Sports)
Victory over the Sale Sharks in the Heineken Champions Cup last weekend was a welcome respite for Ulster following a largely disappointing series of results across two tournaments either side of the Christmas period.
Dan McFarland’s side’s challenge is to maintain that momentum against the Stormers, the reigning United Rugby Championship (URC) title-holders and the side that beat Ulster 17-15, scoring a converted try with the clock in the red in last year’s semi-final in Cape Town. The Irish province would dearly like to exorcise that memory.
Ulster will be without their Ireland contingent, Jacob Stockdale, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole and Iain Henderson but McFarland is able to call upon most of the team that beat Sale last weekend.
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Stewart Moore replaces McCloskey in the centre, Ben Moxham takes over from Stockdale while there is just one change in the pack with Eric O’Sullivan at loosehead prop. Academy product Harry Sheridan retains his place in the back row alongside Nick Timoney and Duane Vermeulen.
There is plenty of quality and experience on a bench to which John Andrew, Rory Sutherland and Ethan McElroy have been added. Andy Warwick, normally a loosehead will cover tighthead prop on this occasion. It’s perhaps a little surprising that Kieran Treadwell and John Cooney are among the replacements having made such a telling impact last week.
Ulster defence coach Jonny Bell admitted: “They are going to be a very difficult animal to what we faced last week. 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.”
Stormers head coach John Dobson has made sweeping changes to the team that lost 24-17 last weekend to the Glasgow Warriors in Scotstoun. Only five of that team are retained, secondrows, Ben-Jason Dixon and captain Marvin Orie, flanker Willie Engelbrecht, right wing Suleiman Hartzenberg and fullback Clayton Blommetjies.
Evan Roos returns at number eight, but they are without several of their Springbok contingent, prop Steven Kitshoff – he will join Ulster on a three-year deal after this year’s World Cup in France – hooker Joseph Dweba, the injured outhalf Manie Libbok and the versatile Damian Willemse.
Ulster have lost three of their last four URC matches but haven’t been defeated in successive home games in the league – they lost to Munster in Belfast last time out – since 2010.
The second-placed Stormers have to go back to October for their last win on the road, against Zebre in Parma.
For players like James Hume, Treadwell and Nick Timoney, who were omitted from the Ireland squad for the Six Nations Championship, the ideal riposte comes through performance, albeit that the primary focus will be on all things Ulster.
Timoney, who produced a man-of-the-match performance against Sale, admitted: “I was obviously devastated but, at the same time, I can’t be crying off about that when things haven’t been the way they should be at Ulster.
“If I thought I was more motivated to play this week having not been selected, when results have been going the way they have been, then who the hell am I as a team-mate?”
Ulster successfully drew a line in the sand last week producing a hard-nosed performance, fuelled by physicality and energy; a similar application will be required again to weather what the Stormers will bring.
Ulster: M Lowry; R Lyttle, J Hume, S Moore, B Moxham; B Burns, N Doak; E O’Sullivan, T Stewart, J Toomaga Allen; A O’Connor (capt), S Carter; H Sheridan, N Timoney, D Vermeulen. Replacements: J Andrew, R Sutherland, A Warwick, K Treadwell, J Murphy, J Cooney, I Madigan, E McIlroy.
Stormers: C Blommetjies; S Hartzenberg, R Nel, S Feinberg-Mngomezulu, C Smit; J-L du Plessis, S Ungerer; A Vermaak, JJ Kotze, B Harris; B-J Dixon, M Orie (capt); J Pokomela, W Engelbrecht, E Roos. Replacements: S Ntubeni, K Blose, S Sandi, R van Heerden, M Theunissen, H Jantjies, K Wolhuter, J de Jongh.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)