Off and on the pitch, Ulster’s season is still taking shape. Nevertheless, last week’s opening defeat away to the Dragons intensifies their need to mark their first competitive game under the steepling new stands at either end of Ravenhill with a win and so kickstart their campaign.
With terracing in front of the demolished grandstand, the capacity is now 13,500, and with the completion of a new grandstand in March, next season Ravenhill will be an impressively modern and completely rebuilt ground with an 18,000-plus capacity. As it is, Ulster are reaping the benefits of a state-of-the-art gym underneath the Family Stand.
"It looks a different ground to be honest, it's just amazing," enthuses coach Mark Anscombe. "It'll be exciting. The boys like playing at home in front of their supporters, so we've got to make sure we justify the faith they have in us with our performance."
This need has been sharpened by the events of last week. In stark contrast to last season, when Ulster’s opening win at home to Glasgow in the corresponding match ignited an 11-match winning start to their League campaign en route to topping the regular season table, last weekend they made a decidedly undistinguished start with that 15-8 defeat against a team which finished 11 places and 53 points below them last season.
“It definitely wasn’t the best of starts, that’s stating the obvious,” admitted Mark Anscombe. “But we have to recognise why we were like that, and we’ve had a good chat and a good few days, and we’ve got to move on. We can’t dwell on it. We’ve got to get back on the horse and go about our work.”
After a full season working with them, he expects a strong reaction from his players. "Most definitely, and we need to show that we are a threat and a team to be respected. The only way to earn that respect is by your performance and we've got to do our talking on the pitch, not off it."
Anscombe's own response has been to make seven changes in personnel, and two positional, albeit one of which was enforced due to the finger surgery which will sideline Andrew Trimble for four to six weeks. David McIlwaine switches flanks in his place, with Darren Cave restored at outside centre and Luke Marshall reverting to 12 , and Michael Allen is on the left wing.
Interestingly, Ian Porter has been selected ahead of Paul Marshall after his match-winning cameo off the bench in the pre-season win over Leinster. The 25-year-old ex-Ireland under-20s, goal-kicking scrumhalf left rugby last season to working in an engineering company before rediscovering his itch to play the game and is on a six-month academy contract.
Up front, Declan Fitzpatrick is promoted from the bench at tighthead, while last season's Pro12 Player of the Season Nick Williams makes his seasonal bow, with 24-year-old Australian Seán Doyle called up at openside and Roger Wilson switching to the blindside. Doyle makes his first league start in exactly a year since fracturing a tibula in a club game for Dungannon.
One of their ten Irish summer tourists, Iain Henderson, is also in line for his seasonal re-appearance after being named among a replacements' bench featuring fellow internationals Tom Court, Chris Henry and Marshall.
“We want to keep the buys accountable for their performances and it’s a long tough season,” said Anscombe, “so we’ve got to make sure we utilise our squad and spread the workload throughout the year as well.”
Anscombe is specifically targeting an improvement in Ulster's accuracy at the breakdown. "We've got to look after the ball better and we're not getting the strike options off our set-piece, and if we can do that we know we have firepower. It's not so much the numbers as the accuracy, being a bit closer to the ball carrier and looking after the ball, and if we do that, we'll be alright."
Yet Connacht were not alone in describing Glasgow as the best team in the league at the breakdown, particularly in their sharpness onto the ball and the ensuing difficulty in shifting them off the ball. Semi-finalists last season for the second season running, they virtually doubled their try tally under Gregor Townsend.
Nonetheless, while they have the cutting edge of Lions fullback Stuart Hogg and DTH van der Merwe, Glasgow will be missing the running threat of Fijian scrumhalf Niko Matawalu due to an ankle injury. They have also lost on their last four visits to Ravenhill.
There's no doubting that the Ravenhill crowd will be holding their collective breath when Paddy Jackson addresses his first kick after his difficulties in Newport last weekend, but if he relocates his radar and Williams gives them the ballast and front-foot ball, then their wounded pride ought to spark a telling response.
ULSTER: J Payne, D McIlwaine, D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen, P Jackson, I Porter; C Black, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick, J Muller (Captain), D Tuohy, R Wilson, S Doyle, N Williams. Replacements: N Annett, T Court, R Lutton, I Henderson, C Henry, P Marshall, J McKinney, R Andrew.
GLASGOW WARRIORS: S Hogg; T Seymour, S Lamont, M Bennett, DTH van der Merwe; R Jackson, H Pyrgos (Captain); R Grant, P MacArthur, E Kalman, T Swinson, J Gray, R Harley, T Holmes, J Strauss. Replacements: D Hall, G Reid, M Low, J Eddie, C Fusaro, R Vernon, C Cusiter, G Ascarate.
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU)
Forecast: Ulster to win.