Edinburgh v Ulster, Saturday, DAM Health Stadium, 7.35 – Live on Premier Sports
With valuable ground having already been yielded, Ulster are now about to discover whether they have what it takes to extract themselves from what has been a damaging series of recent results.
Up to this point the province have lost seven games in all competitions but four of those defeats have all arrived over the last month, combining to wreck their European ambitions of securing a home quarter-final, albeit by the slimmest of margins, while also shipping harm to those same plans in the United Rugby Championship.
Their performance was well off the money in last Friday’s URC home loss to Munster and should they also trip up in what looks to be a formidable challenge in Edinburgh then Ulster will have lost four league games on the bounce, something unknown to the province since 2011.
With just two rounds remaining before the playoffs, Dan McFarland’s squad need to regain the initiative with a view to breaking back into the top four and securing what once looked to be a relatively well nailed-on knock-out game at the Kingspan
Ulster also require a win this evening to not only guarantee themselves a top eight finish – there is still a possibility of the Scarlets overhauling them – but four points should also be sufficient to dodge any potential humiliation of making the playoffs yet missing out on next season’s Champions Cup.
A lot is at stake, then, for McFarland and his players but then it’s the same for Edinburgh as they can still harbour notions of a top four finish though, unlike Ulster, they are still battling on two fronts with a Challenge Cup home quarter-final to come with Wasps.
Ulster have made six changes from last week, Billy Burns returning at outhalf, while Nathan Doak is preferred to John Cooney, Kieran Treadwell gets the nod to partner Iain Henderson – the Ulster skipper having been a doubt for this game – and Marcus Rea and Duane Vermeulen are restored to the backrow.
The other alteration sees Gareth Milasinovich in for the presumably stood-down Marty Moore for what will be only his third start, while there is a positional switch as Michael Lowry is moved back to 15 from outhalf.
Edinburgh, who are unbeaten in the 10 games so far played at the DAM Health Stadium – though they just managed to defeat Zebre last time out – are looking strong and have several frontliners including WP Nel, Stuart McInally, Grant Gilchrist, Jamie Hodgson and Magnus Bradbury back in the starting side.
With so much significance on the outcome for both sides, this already feels as if there is a knock-out element to it and, as such, could easily become a taut and thoroughly edgy affair.
EDINBURGH: J van der Walt; D Hoyland, M Bennett, J Lang, E Boffelli; B Kinghorn, B Vellacott; P Schoeman, S McInally, WP Nel; J Hodgson, G Gilchrist (capt); L Crosbie, H Watson, M Bradbury.
Replacements: D Cherry, H Courtney, L-R Atalifo, P Phillips, B Muncaster, H Pyrgos, C Dean, M Currie
ULSTER: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, N Doak; A Warwick, R Herring, G Milasinovich; K Treadwell, I Henderson (capt); Marcus Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: B Roberts, E O'Sullivan, R Kane, A O'Connor, Matty Rea, J Cooney, S Moore, R Lyttle
Referee: B Whitehouse (WRU).