Ulster can rise above injury issues to get back to winning ways at the Kingspan Stadium

Edinburgh travel with plenty of international experience in tow but find themselves in a run of middling form

Ulster v Edinburgh, Kingspan Stadium, Saturday December 2nd, 5.15, live on Premier Sports, URC TV

It was the manner of the performance as much as the defeat that may rankle as a legacy issue for Ulster head coach Dan McFarland in the wake of last week’s defeat to the Glasgow Warriors. He’ll certainly be expecting a much-improved effort in Belfast on Saturday evening, despite some high-profile absentees.

Captain Iain Henderson picked up a hip issue, Luke Marshall damaged a shoulder, Jake Flannery never made it onto the Scotstoun pitch, tweaking a groin in the warm-up, while hooker Rob Herring suffered a calf injury in training during the week.

However, it is not all gloom on the injury front as Nick Timoney (knee) returns to the starting team, Dave Ewers (hip), Stewart Moore (hamstring) and John Andrew (neck) are named on the bench while centre Jude Postlethwaite (shoulder) flanker Greg Jones (shoulder) have returned full-time to training.


There was further good news as Irish internationals Will Addison and Tom O’Toole are back in the starting line-up. McFarland has had to drill down into his playing roster through the first six weeks of the URC campaign, using 46 players to date, the most of any club in the league.

Last week James McNabney, a double Grand Slam winner with the Ireland Under-20s, became the 12th player to make his Ulster debut this season, eight of whom have come through the rugby pathway in the province. Twice-crowned Rugby World Cup winner, Springbok Steven Kitshoff, will get his first run out in front of a Kingspan Stadium crowd.

Despite the injury concerns Ulster can field a top-class backline with Jacob Stockdale arguably the in-form wing in Irish rugby; five tries this season, eight clean breaks, nine defenders beaten, and four offloads reveal some of the story. Rob Baloucoune provides top end pace on the other flank while James Hume and Stuart McCloskey dovetail nicely in the midfield.

Billy Burns is a canny operator when given scope while John Cooney has broken through the 1,000-point barrier for the province, a notable landmark. To maximise the attacking threat behind the scrum, the Ulster pack need not only to provide a platform in terms of quick front-foot ball but also to polish some of the basics.

Ulster’s once potent lineout maul is no longer as formidable, undermined by an intermittent failure to secure possession in the first place. Edinburgh are missing a few players through injury but will still pose plenty of problems if the home side are any way distracted.

In Luke Crosbie and James Ritchie, with Hamish Watson in reserve, the Scottish side have players who can poach and pilfer with the best of them, if Ulster’s breakdown work isn’t focused and accurate. Edinburgh coach Sean Everitt said: “We’ve made a number of changes this week – a few unfortunately down to injury, but that’s really exciting for the guys who come in and get their opportunity.

“We’re lucky enough to have strength and depth at other positional groups where we’ve been able to rotate, while we welcome back experienced players like Bill Mata, Jamie Hodgson, Hamish Watson and Mark Bennett, who will all be chomping at the bit to make an impact.”

On the assumption that Ulster produce a performance that better represents the talent within the group in front of their home supporters, they should have the wherewithal to return to winnings ways.

Ulster: W Addison; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; S Kitshoff, T Stewart, T O’Toole; A O’Connor (capt), K Treadwell; Matty Rea, N Timoney, J McNabney.

Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, M Moore, C Izuchukwu, D Ewers, N Doak, S Moore, B Moxham.

Edinburgh: T Swiel; H Paterson, M Currie, J Lang, W Goosen; B Healy, B Vellacott (capt); P Schoeman, E Ashman, WP Nel; M Sykes, J Hodgson; L Crosbie, J Ritchie, B Mata.

Replacements: A McBurney, R Hislop, J Sebastian, G Young, H Watson, A Price, C Scott, M Bennett.

Referee: F Vedovelli (Italy).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer