United Rugby Championship: Ulster v Bulls
URC, Saturday, Ravenhill, kickoff 7.35pm
Having arrived at the break by racking up two bonus point wins at the Sharks and Cardiff, Ulster can now dare to assume they are well over their previous wobbles while feeling reasonably good about themselves with their remaining three rounds of URC regular season fixtures all being at Ravenhill.
With the Bulls today and then the Dragons and Edinburgh to come when it comes to the league – next weekend’s European last-16 encounter with all too familiar knockout foes Leinster at the Aviva being parked for the moment – the third-placed northern province can justifiably have notions about potentially chasing down the Stormers in second.
Get the better of an off-form Bulls team, who are in sixth and facing a daunting looking trip to Toulouse for next weekend’s European knockout game, and Dan McFarland’s squad will have managed a clean sweep of wins over all the South African sides in the league’s regular season, with the footnote here being the achievement of victories on both visits south of the equator.
Despite not having Stuart McCloskey, Rob Herring and Tom O’Toole in terms of Ireland squad members – Iain Henderson is, of course, out after undergoing surgery – as well as Rory Sutherland who was with Scotland, McFarland has been able to show a strong hand for this encounter.
Robert Baloucoune returns from the hamstring issue that has kept him sidelined since January in what has been a badly interrupted season, while Kieran Treadwell, who had a cameo role from the Irish bench in last Saturdays’ Grand Slam clincher, has been released to start for the province.
Rising star Tom Stewart, who was also with the Ireland squad last week, starts in a pack which includes the mobile Jeff Toomaga-Allen and dynamic Nick Timoney.
Duane Vermeulen skippers the team against one of his former clubs, and the 36-year-old should be fresh after not having played since last month’s visit to the Sharks in Durban.
Behind the scrum Nathan Doak again starts at scrumhalf, and in midfield, the versatile Stewart Moore teams up with James Hume.
Along with the newly-returned Baloucoune, the presence of Jacob Stockdale and Michael Lowry means that Ulster have their first choice back three together again.
In what appears to be in expectation of a fairly bruising battle up front McFarland has opted for a 6-2 bench split allowing him to deploy the trio of Alan O’Connor, Harry Sheridan and Marcus Rea. Ulster’s only back replacements are John Cooney and Jude Postlethwaite meaning that cover for outhalf Billy Burns will be provided by either Doak or Cooney.
Unless Ulster somehow find themselves being put through the wringer by Jake White’s struggling squad, the home side really ought to chalk up another good result.
ULSTER: M Lowry, R Baloucoune, J Hume, S Moore, J Stockdale, B Burns, N Doak, A Warwick, T Stewart, J Toomaga-Allen, K Treadwell, S Carter, D McCann, N Timoney, D Vermeulen (capt). Replacements: J Andrew, E O’Sullivan, G Milasinovich, A O’Connor, H Sheridan, J Cooney, J Postlethwaite, Marcus Rea
VODACOM BULLS: K-L Arendse, C Moodie, C Hendricks, H Vorster, D Kriel, C Smith, Z Burger, G Steenekamp, J Grobbelaar, M Smith, R Vermaak, R Nortje (capt), M van Staden, C Brink, E Louw. Replacements: S Matanzima, B Du Plessis, F Klopper, J Swanepoel, WJ Steenkamp, E Papier, M Steyn, S Gans
Referee: C Evans (WRU)