Ulster v Edinburgh
Venue: Kingspan Stadium. Kick-off: 7.35pm. On TV: Live on eir Sport 2.
As with the meeting in Scotstoun, this is another Irish–Scottish affair which could have important long-term repercussions given these two vied for third place in Conference B last season and with it the last qualifying spot for the play-offs and last automatic place in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Likewise also, there are plenty of miles to travel but bearing in mind that eventual finalists Leinster and the Scarlets finished a dozen points clear of Edinburgh, those two could again prove out of reach. In any case, when the dust settled last May, Edinburgh’s 17-16 win here in February contributed enormously to them finishing six points above Ulster in the final table.
Ultimately, Ulster redeemed their season with a five-game unbeaten run, kick-started by a 32-20 win away to Edinburgh and finished with a gutsy, 35-17 play-off win the Ospreys which secured them qualification for this season’s premier European competition.
Despite another season of comings and goings, on and off the pitch, they hung in there to eventually overcome a gamey if ill-disciplined young Scarlets side by 15-13 last Saturday which, on the balance of play, they just about deserved.
With the impressive Iain Henderson helping to stymie four attacking lineouts for the Scarlets, Ulster had much the better of the possession and territory, and there was a clear intent to offload, witness 17 in the first-half and 18 in total, even if they couldn't breach the Scarlets' try line.
Marcell Coetzee again provided a reminder of the ball-carrying he could bring to the mix, and Nick Timoney had a huge defensive game (as did old warrior Darren Cave).
For this game, the back row is boosted by a debut for Jordi Murphy, alongside the latter two, while the other three changes are also in the pack, with hooker Rob Herring, captaining the side, prop Ross Kane and lock Kieran Treadwell all starting. Billy Burns looks like he could be entertaining at least, and Will Addison (balanced running, inventive handling) appears a very good signing.
Under Richard Cockerill, Edinburgh were arguably the most improved side in the competition last season, winning 15 of 21 games compared to six of 22 the previous season, and the ex-Leicester coach could not conceal his disappointment with his side's defeat away to the Ospreys last Saturday – riddled as it was with handling mistakes. That is liable to make them more dangerous here, as they'll hardly be as error-prone.
Nevertheless, no less than Ulster, it could also take Edinburgh a little while for their new signings to bed in, such as the half-back pairing of Henry Pyrgos and Simon Hickey.
Edinburgh’s win here last February was their first victory against Ulster in Belfast since 2009, and Ulster have now won their last six PR14 games in a row at the Kingspan Stadium.
With an upcoming two-game tour to South Africa, followed by a trek to Thomond Park, another win would be a timely tonic for Ulster and their new head coach Dan McFarland.
ULSTER: Will Addison; Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Henry Speight; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring (capt), Ross Kane, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson, Marcell Coetzee, Jordi Murphy, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: Adam McBurney, Eric O'Sullivan, Wiehahn Herbst, Alan O'Connor, Sean Reidy, Dave Shanahan, Angus Curtis, Angus Kernohan.
EDINBURGH: Blair Kinghorn; Dougie Fife, Mark Bennett, Matt Scott, Tom Brown; Simon Hickey, Henry Pyrgos; Pierre Schoeman, Stuart McInally (capt), WP Nel, Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist, Luke Hamilton, Jamie Ritchie, Bill Mata.
Replacements: Ross Ford, Allan Dell, Murray McCallum, Fraser McKenzie, Luke Crosbie, Sean Kennedy, Jaco van der Walt, James Johnstone.
Referee: Olly Hodges (IRFU).
Overall Guinness PRO14 head to head: Played 31, Ulster won 20, Edinburgh won 11.
Last season: Ulster 16 Edinburgh 17. Edinburgh 20 Ulster 32.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 4/9 Ulster, 16/1 Draw, 9/5 Edinburgh. Handicap betting (Edinburgh + 5 pts) 10/11 Ulster, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Edinburgh.
Forecast: Ulster to win.