Ulster should have too much for improving Benetton in Belfast

Despite injury problems Dan McFarland’s side have started season in fine form

Ulster v Benetton, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm – Live TG4 and Premier Sport 1

While anything other than a third straight win for Ulster looks a fairly unlikely outcome, such assumptions can never entirely be guaranteed when the opposition come armed with more belief than usual.

Yet alongside the usual noises of how Benetton are in better shape than in previous seasons – the Italians, of course, won the unloved Rainbow Cup and are two wins from two in the URC – Ulster know that they, too, have already shown convincing enough glimpses of what ought to keep them ticking along as a top three side in the league while holding reasonable aspirations for much more.

With 10 points bagged from two games, and this achieved without them yet having entirely hit full stride, Ulster have created some useful looking early momentum despite possessing an injury list now containing Jacob Stockdale, Robert Baloucoune, John Cooney, Stuart McCloskey and Jordi Murphy.

Thankfully for Dan McFarland the early season form of Will Addison, James Hume, Craig Gilroy, Ethan McIlroy, Nick Timoney and teenager Nathan Doak has helped off-set the loss of so many frontliners.


Indeed, McFarland has opted to stick with a mostly unchanged side for Friday night from the one which scored six tries at Zebre – the injuries no doubt having an influence – with only prop Andrew Warwick and lock Sam Carter being brought in, the latter swapping his previous bench place with Mick Kearney while also taking on the captaincy.

Another extra motivating factor in trying to manufacture a performance of dominance is that this evening sees Rob Herring make his 200th Ulster appearance and become the seventh Ulster player to hit the double-century mark.

But sentiment alone will not suffice and Ulster will be seeking more effective set-piece work than was seen against Zebre and particularly through shoring up the attacking threat of their lineout mauls.

The Billy Burns-Doak axis will need to be firing while big games will be needed from flankers Matty Rea and David McCann.

Ulster will also be aware that Benetton have more threat to them than Zebre, particularly with the running of Rhyno Smith at fullback who punished the province before when with the Cheetahs.

Unless Ulster badly lose their way, this should be win number three.

ULSTER: W Addison; C Gilroy, J Hume, S Moore, E McIlroy; B Burns, N Doak; A Warwick, R Herring, T O'Toole; A O'Connor, S Carter (capt); Matty Rea, N Timoney, D McCann.

Replacements: B Roberts, C Reid, R Kane, M Kearney, S Reidy, D Shanahan, M Lowry, B Moxham.

BENETTON RUGBY: R Smith; R Tavuyara, M Zanon, T Benvenuti, L Sperandio; L Marin, C Braley; F Zani, C Els, I Nemer; I Herbst, F Ruzza; G Pettinelli, M Lamaro (capt), B Steyn.

Replacements: T Baravalle, C Traore, T Pasquali, M Lazzaroni, S Negri, L Cannone, L Petrozzi, L Morisi.

Referee: AJ Jacobs (SARU).