Ulster v Glasgow Warriors, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm – Live Premier Sports 1
It’s hardly the worst looking opener for Ulster. After all, it’s a Friday night at the Kingspan and now with a ceiling of 15,000 spectators allowed through the gates.
The arrival of the all-new United Rugby Championship probably needs the prospect of a raucous Ulster crowd to propel it forwards just as much as it requires sides – the northern province included – which might finally produce more than just a hopeful tilt at Leinster’s dominance.
In the short-term, though, Dan McFarland knows that he has the artillery to deliver the anticipated winning start over former employers Glasgow Warriors as his squad bid to replicate last season’s strong Pro 14 form, which produced 14 victories from 16 games, before their European Challenge Cup semi-final exit and dismal Rainbow Cup efforts resulted in ultimate deflation.
The fact that the Pro 14 playoffs were jettisoned still rankles around the Kingspan, though in general the mood is pretty upbeat after last week’s attention-grabbing securing of Duane Vermeulen’s signature – even though he will not arrive until after the Springbok’s autumn tour is done. There was also the manner in which McFarland’s squad dismantled Saracens, in London, for their final pre-season hit-out.
McFarland is playing a strong hand for Friday night's opener with three of their four latest Ireland caps from the summer thumping of the USA in the starting line-up as Robert Baloucoune, who scored a stunning try on debut, James Hume and Nick Timoney have all got the nod, while Tom O'Toole is named on the bench.
A notable returnee to competitive action is scrumhalf John Cooney, who missed the closing part of last season due to injury, and he links up again with Billy Burns in what is still Ulster's favoured halfback partnership, with Nathan Doak and Michael Lowry providing the back-up.
Will Addison should also get some valuable game time – he also featured for Ireland against the United States in July – and is named on the bench along with fellow international Rob Herring, who has recovered from a knock.
Jacob Stockdale is on the opposite wing to Baloucoune while the promising Ethan McIlroy is handed a surprise start at 15, while Hume and Stuart McCloskey make up a hard-running midfield.
Up front, the home side have to manage without the injured Jordi Murphy with Greg Jones getting the nod at blindside, with Sean Reidy at openside and Timoney at number eight.
The form shown by South African hooker Brad Roberts, both in the last campaign and in pre-season, has been rewarded with his first competitive start and he packs down either side of the experienced Andrew Warwick and Marty Moore.
The side is skippered by Sam Carter who has Alan O'Connor alongside him in the engine room. Mick Kearney awaits deployment from a bench which also includes Eric O'Sullivan and Matty Rea.
Glasgow have five debutants in their squad for the URC opener but look decent enough with senior players Richie Gray, Ryan Wilson, the newly returned Duncan Weir and benched duo of Rob Harley and Fraser Brown all aiming to step up.
It still looks a formidable task at what is expected to be both a lively Ulster attack and Kingspan Stadium.
ULSTER: E McIlroy; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, B Roberts, M Moore; A O'Connor, S Carter (capt); G Jones, S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: R Herring, E O'Sullivan, T O'Toole, M Kearney, M Rea, N Doak, M Lowry, W Addison.
GLASGOW WARRIORS: C Forbes; K Steyn, S Tuipulotu, S Johnson, R McLean; D Weir, G Horne; B Thyer, J Matthews, S Berghan; S Cummings, R Gray; R Wilson (capt), R Darge, J Dempsey.
Replacements: F Brown, J Bhatti, M McCallum, L Bean, R Harley, J Dobie, R Thompson, O Smith.
Referee: B Whitehouse (Wales).
Prediction: Ulster to win.