URC previews: Struggling Ulster need win against Dragons

Both Byrnes start for Leinster as they visit Cardiff without Six Nations players

Ulster v Dragons, Kingspan Stadium 7.35pm (Live: Premier Sports)

These are not good days for Ulster Rugby. Losses of over €1 million last year reported in the Belfast Telegraph, head coach Dan McFarland gone, Richie Murphy coming in as interim coach but not until after his Irish Under 20s complete their Six Nations program, outhalf Billy Burns reported departure to Munster and assistant coach Dan Soper naming this week’s team to face Dragons.

Despite Burns intended move south, he forms an experienced halfback partnership with John Cooney for Ulster’s first home match in the United Rugby Championship (URC) since a win over Connacht in Belfast before Christmas. In their most recent match they lost 19-17 to Ospreys in Swansea, which leaves them perilously close to dropping out of the top eight teams on the table.

So as Ulster cling to hopes of making the playoffs, the good news for them is Dragons are struggling at 15th, which from a desperation viewpoint could make them dangerous visitors. Nick Timoney was vocal this week in a call to arms for his team and despite a poor run of form which has only produced three wins in nine games in all competitions, the Irish backrow wants players to show that this is “not a transitional thing” and Ulster are still contenders.


Timoney also spoke this week of the shock that greeted McFarland’s departure but hopes that will have a galvanising effect. James Hume captains the side that has a lively backline with Mike Lowry and Ethan McIlroy on the wings and some experienced bodies in the pack. A frontrow of double Rugby World Cup-winner Springbok Steven Kitshoff at loosehead prop, hooker Tom Stewart, and tighthead Tom O’Toole should provide a strong platform. Ulster need to win this one for all sorts of reasons and they probably will.

Ulster: W Addison; E McIlroy, J Hume (capt), Postlethwaite, M Lowry; B Burns, John Cooney; S Kitshoff, T Stewart, T O’Toole, C Izuchukwu, H Sheridan, D McCann, M Rea, N Timoney. Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, S Wilson, K Treadwell, S Reffell, N Doak, L Marshall, J Stockdale.

Dragons: E Rosser; J Westwood, S Hughes (capt), A Owen, C Baldwin; W Reed, D Blacker; R Martinez, J Benjamin, C Coleman, S Lonsdale, M Screech, D Lydiate, H Taylor, T Basham Replacements: B Coghlan, A Seiuli, L Yendle, B Langton-Cryer, G Nott, G Bertranou, H Ackerman, Anderson.

Referee: I Kenny (IRFU)

Cardiff v Leinster, Cardiff Arms Park, 7.35pm (Live: RTE2 and Premier Sports)

One of the main talking points is Harry Byrne starting in the centre and older brother Ross taking up the outhalf position as Leinster travel to Cardiff for the 11th match of their URC season. It is not often Harry plays at 12 and in recent games Ciarán Frawley, who scored a try from fullback in Ireland’s recent Six Nations Championship win over Wales, has been the player to make positional adjustments.

Leinster prides itself on producing good footballers and the younger Byrne will bear that in mind in a typically strong backline despite most of the International frontline players remaining with Ireland ,including Frawley. Byrne is one of two changes to the side that beat Benetton last time out. The Italian side are the only other club in the league that have, along with Leinster, lost just twice so far this season in 10 outings.

Harry replaces the injured Tommy O’Brien, with a couple of positional changes allowing Liam Turner push out to the wing, and Jamie Osborne start at outside centre. An interesting aside is how the talented Osborne and Byrne connect. The presence of Luke McGrath at scrumhalf and Ross Byrne at 10 makes for an experienced halfback pairing.

After appearing for Ireland against Italy in the Six Nations Championship, Jordan Larmour has been released by Andy Farrell for some game time and he lines out at fullback for his 100th Leinster appearance. In contrast Josh Turnbull will make his 200th appearance for Cardiff as he captains the Welsh side after 10 years at the club.

“To make 200 appearances for Cardiff, on top of 130 odd games for the Scarlets and 14 Wales caps, is no mean feat especially in the position he plays and the way he puts his body on the line,” said Cardiff coach Matt Sherratt.

“We all know how good Leinster are, but we have shown that we can beat any team on our day at the Arms Park.

“Another big crowd is expected on Saturday night. It all makes for an exciting occasion and we will give it our absolute all.”

But it remains first-placed Leinster against 12th-placed Cardiff with openside flanker Scott Penny again captaining the Leinster side with Max Deegan at number eight and Will Connors on the blindside in an unchanged pack from the one that beat Benetton. After featuring in last week’s friendly against Saracens, Michael Milne is in line to make his first competitive appearance of the season, from the bench. The loosehead prop was part of the Emerging Ireland squad that travelled to South Africa in 2022.

South African lock Jason Jenkins and Ross Molony are retained, while Jack Boyle, Lee Barron and Thomas Clarkson continue at the front of the scrum as Leinster seek to secure their place at the top of the table, where they are currently three points ahead of chasing Glasgow, who play against Benetton on Saturday in Stadio Monigo.

Cardiff: J Beetham; O Lane, M Clark, B Thomas, A Summerhill; T de Beer, E Bevan; R Carré, L Belcher, W Davies-King; S Lewis-Hughes, J Turnbull (capt), E Jenkins, T Young, L Timani. Replacements: D Hughes, R Barratt, C Parker, B Donnell, A Lawrence, L de la Rua, M Aubrey, W Halaholo

Leinster: J Larmour; L Turner, J Osborne, H Byrne, R Russell; R Byrne, L McGrath; J Boyle, L Barron, T Clarkson; R Molony, J Jenkins, W Connors, S Penny (capt), M Deegan. Replacements: J McKee, M Milne, M Ala’alatoa, B Deeny, R Ruddock, B Murphy, S Prendergast, B Brownlee

Referee: M Adamson (SRU)

Connacht v Scarlets, Dexcom Stadium, Galway 17.05pm (Live TG4, Premier Sports)

Connacht are looking for their third win in a row, which given the tightly bunched group of six teams between 28 and 30 points around the cut-off mark of eighth place on the table, every point that can be squeezed out of a match now counts. Hoping to make that happen is Eoin de Buitléar, who will make his first start after four replacement appearances. The hooker, who came up through the ranks at An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí and Scoil Chuimsiteach Chiaráin in Connemara, along with the rest of the team will wear the socks of his first club or school as part of the United Rugby Championship’s Origin Round. Certain to be a proud moment.

De Buitlear is among five home starting changes as Peter Dooley, Gavin Thornbury, Sean Jansen and Byron Ralston – also back from suspension – are recalled. The experienced Tiernan O’Halloran gives Connacht solidity at fullback with the talented halfback pair of scrumhalf and captain, Caolin Blade and outhalf, JJ Hanrahan partnering in an area of the field where things often happen for the home side.

Scarlets have their Welsh centre Johnny Williams returning from a suspension after serving a six-week ban after being sent off in January for a dangerous tackle against Clermont in the Challenge Cup. Scrumhalf Efan Jones will make his first league start with Gareth Davies and Kieran Hardy not released by Wales.

Connacht have not played at home for six weeks, so they will be teed up for a big performance all round. The team will miss the versatility and ability of South African Shayne Bolton in the backline, who suffered a double concussion and ankle injury. He has been an in-form player since his debut at the end of last year.

Connacht: T O’Halloran; B Ralston, D Hawkshaw, C Forde, A Smith; JJ Hanrahan, C Blade (capt); P Dooley, E de Buitlear, J Aungier, N Murray, G Thornbury, C Prendergast, S Hurley-Langton, S Jansen. Replacements: D Heffernan, D Buckley, S Illo, O, S O’Brien, M McDonald, J Carty, C Oliver.

Scarlets: I Nicholas; T Lewis, J Williams, E James; S Evans; D Jones, E Jones; W Jones, S Evans, S Wainwright, A Craig, J Price, S Lousi (capt), D Davis, V Fifita. Replacements: E Swart, S Thomas, J Jones, M Jones, B Williams, A Hughes, C Titcombe, R Conbeer.

Referee: Federico Vedovelli (FIR)

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times