Ulster look to have their work cut out against Edinburgh

Dan McFarland’s side are bidding to lift their Pro14 semi-final hoodoo at Murrayfield

Pro14 semi-finals: Edinburgh v Ulster Rugby, Saturday September 5th, Murrayfield (kick-off 7.35pm, live on eir Sport and Premier Sports 1)

Before their first game after the resumption Dan McFarland expressed the hope that his side would put their best foot forward against Connacht, but clearly had an eye on breaking Ulster’s cycle of semi-final defeats, the most recent of which was in Glasgow last season.

This is Ulster’s ninth Pro14 semi-final encounter, but they have won only one previous match, at home to Scarlets in 2013 and another semi-final, in itself, McFarland said was “not what we want. We’ve been there. We did that last year and we didn’t enjoy it. We’re focusing on trying to be better this year.”

In the event, Edinburgh’s win over Glasgow the night before Ulster resumed their season ensured the former’s presence in the semi-finals whereas McFarland’s side were playing the first of what amounted to two dead rubbers. And the difference showed.


Ulster did not put their best foot forward against Connacht, and the early withdrawal of the talismanic John Cooney and Marcell Coetzee was a signal that Ulster had bigger fish to fry. Now comes the acid test of whether they have made progress from last season.

Nonetheless, McFarland’s apparent displeasure with his side’s performance in the 26-20 defeat by Connacht is evident in his selection with Billy Burns returning to captain Ulster as one of three changes from last week’s meeting with Leinster.

This means that, all told, there are six changes from the side that lost to Connacht, with Rob Lyttle on the wing as Craig Gilroy misses out, while Eric O'Sullivan and Tom O'Toole pack down alongside Rob Herring, ahead of the Irish international pair of Jack McGrath and Marty Moore, who are on the bench. Sam Carter starts ahead of Kieran Treadwell while Matthew Rea is in the backrow alongside Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee.

Jacob Stockdale, whose performance at fullback will again be interesting with Ireland's probable six-Test programme in mind, and the centre pairing of Stuart McCloskey and James Hume, have all overcome injury doubts to start.

By contrast, Richard Cockerill was able to rest a host of frontline internationals for last weekend’s dead rubber against Glasgow and after what he admitted was a pretty dreadful game the ex-Leicester head coach recalls a host of international front-liners in making eight changes from a week ago.

Scotland lock Grant Gilchrist, making his 150th appearance for Edinburgh, is one of eight changes along with fellow internationals Mark Bennett, Rory Sutherland, Stuart McInally, WP Nel and Ben Toolis.

The experienced duo of Nic Groom, double try scorer in that win over Glasgow, and South African outhalf Jaco van der Walt, man of the match in that victory, also return. They are further boosted by the return from injury of flanker Jamie Ritchie on the bench to augment a strong, well-balanced backrow.

The degree to which either Bill Mata or Coetzee generate go forward ball may go a long way toward putting their side on the front foot.

“We want to go as far as we can and test ourselves to see how good we are. If we’re good enough we’ll win, and if we’re not, we’ll get exactly what we deserve,” said Cockerill.

“As a club, we’ve been building to this point and I’m hoping those experiences of the last three seasons will come to fruition on Saturday night. It’s about knowing how to play knock-out rugby and not playing an exhibition.”

“Ulster are a great side. We look forward to the challenge and we know at the pressure moments we need to deliver. This is new territory for us. We’re capable - if we get things right - to get to a final and see how good we can be.”

In another match where discipline will be key, especially bearing in mind the high penalty and card counts in Frank Murphy’s two games to date, Ulster will need to deny Edinburgh access to their 22 as much as possible.

That said, Edinburgh have also added to their game, scoring two tries against Glasgow from distance through running back a kick downfield and off turnover ball, with Duhan van der Merwe a particularly dangerous player in broken play, and 22-year-old replacement scrumhalf Charlie Shiel scoring a cracker off the bench when beating four men.

If those scores underlined Edinburgh’s attacking threat out wide, Ulster’s concession of four tries also exposed a defensive vulnerability on the edges.

In many ways it’s hard to get a handle on the sides’ respective form, such as it just two games after lockdown. Edinburgh came closest to putting their best foot forward upon their return, and one suspects Ulster will unveil a much improved performance on their two to date, and a more daring and ambitious one.

They also have a good record over Edinburgh, having won the last three meetings between the sides, including two at Murrayfield.

But Edinburgh look fractionally better primed on the limited evidence to date.

Edinburgh: Blair Kinghorn; Darcy Graham, Mark Bennett, Chris Dean; Duhan van der Merwe; Jaco van der Walt, Nic Groom; Rory Sutherland, Stuart McInally (Capt), WP Nel; Ben Toolis, Grant Gilchrist; Magnus Bradbury, Hamish Watson, Viliame Mata. Replacements: Mike Willemse, Pierre Schoeman, Simon Berghan, Andrew Davidson, Jamie Ritchie, Charlie Shiel, Nathan Chamberlain, George Taylor.

Ulster: Jacob Stockdale, Louis Ludik, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle, Billy Burns (Capt), John Cooney; Eric O'Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O'Toole, Alan O'Connor, Sam Carter, Matthew Rea, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee. Replacements: John Andrew, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy, Alby Mathewson, Ian Madigan, Michael Lowry.

Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU).

Last five meetings: (2018-19) Edinburgh 7 Ulster 29, Ulster 30 Edinburgh 29. (2017-18) Edinurgh 20 Ulster 32. Ulster 16 Edinburgh 17. (2016-17) Ulster 24 Edinburgh 18.

Betting (Paddy Power) 2/5 Edinburgh, 16/1 draw, 21/10 Ulster. Handicap odds (Ilster + 6 pts) 10/11 Edinburgh, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Ulster.

Forecast: Edinburgh to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times