Match Preview: Ulster Rugby vs. Glasgow Warriors

Callum Black

Callum Black will make his 100th appearance for Ulster this weekend

What was it Al Jolson sang? “I’m sittin’ on top of the world!”

Apologies if you had to Google who Al Jolson is, but for the first time since the opening day of the season we sit atop of the pile inviting the rest of the league to come and get us, and it is pretty good feeling even if we got there by the skin of our teeth courtesy of Paddy Jackson’s late late penalty against the Dragons last week, made equally ironic in that we didn’t even think we’d have him available for the game.

So while the rest of the league had the week off to enjoy the first weekend of the Six Nations, we kept our momentum going and we will be hoping to carry that through into a huge match this weekend that could see us knock a potential play-off rival out of contention for the top four as Glasgow make the trip over to Belfast.

The PRO12 defending champions have suffered a turbulent start to the season, missing out on Champions’ Cup quarter-final qualification in a pool they thought they might have a chance in, while their domestic form has been patchy at best with international call-ups due to the World Cup and now the Six Nations playing havoc with their talented squad. The Warriors lost 20 players to the World Cup (mostly to Scotland) – any side would struggle with that kind of loss.

And yet remarkably Gregor Townsend’s men are only 12 points off us at the top with two games in hand (against Leinster and Zebre) which is a ringing endorsement for their squad and the depth it possesses. Results may not have been perfect, but should they pull off the win tomorrow night and then pick up two wins in their postponed games then suddenly they’re level with us at the top.

What Glasgow may lack in overall quality is definitely made up for in consistency – whoever they replace in their side will have their place taken by someone of a very similar quality which is where they draw their strength from. The Warriors do not have a stand out starting XV but they have a lot of interchangeable players who will keep up the same intensity week in week out, and that, coupled with an energetic and easy on the eye brand of rugby, is why they are consistently contenders in the PRO12.

So although this game may be, on the face of it, 1st vs 8th in the PRO12, it is far from it in terms of how the league really stands. We got ourselves out of jail against the Dragons last week, this week we will need to double our intensity to avoid a second home league defeat of the season and to maintain our lead at the top of the PRO12 table. Now we’re there we don’t want to relinquish it a week later!

Time for a few of our young guys to step up. Guys like Kyle McCall and Alan O’Connor have been proving they have what it takes in the Champions’ Cup, but these are the games in the league you need to win and they will need to show a new level to their game to ensure we are victorious tomorrow night. Similarly with the likes of Jacob Stockdale, John Andrew and Sammy Arnold – here is a brilliant opportunity for them to put their hands up as players who can perform at this level.

In terms of the team as a whole, this is a glorious opportunity to propel us one step closer to a coveted top two finish as well as dealing a major blow to a play-off rival. Tomorrow night could prove to be the difference at the end of the season between Glasgow finishing above us or below us, such is the congestion at the top of the PRO12 table. This game needs won at all costs.

And preferably not in the 78th minute this week.

The stats

We are back at the summit of the Guinness PRO12 after our win over the Dragons last weekend and it is the first time we have led the PRO12 since May 2013. We are also in a good run of form with our only league defeat in our last five games was at home to Munster, a 7-9 loss on the 2nd January (which was the last time the Sky cameras were in Belfast!).

Glasgow, on the other hand, have been struggling for form recently with their only win in their last six matches in all competitions being a 22-5 triumph at home over Racing 92 in the Champions’ Cup. The Warriors have only won once away from home in the PRO12 so far this season – a 35-30 victory at the Cardiff Blues – however they did draw 20-20 with the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium last time out.

Where our visitors do have the upper hand is that they have won five of our last six meetings with our only win coming at home in October 2014 when we defeated them 29-9. This will be the Warriors’ first trip back to Belfast since their PRO12 victory last May.

The teams

Four changes for Ulster from last week’s game as Sam Windsor makes his first start for his new province. Windsor is one of two changes to the back line as he replaces the injured Ian Humphreys at fly-half while Stuart McCloskey is released from Ireland duty to start at inside centre with Stuart Olding moving to full-back to replace Louis Ludik. In the pack there are two changes with Franco van der Merwe returning from his rest in the second row and Nick Williams starting at number eight.

Gregor Townsend has opted for four changes for tomorrow’s clash with Gregor Hunter making his first start at fly-half in place of the called up Duncan Weir. Hunter is joined at half-back by Ali Price, who replaces Grayson Hart, while in the centre Glenn Bryce is preferred to Taqele Naiyaravoro. Up front there is one change with Simone Favaro replacing Chris Fusaro at openside flanker. Alex Allan, Chris Fusaro, Josh Strauss and Peter Horne are all released from Scotland duty and are named on the bench.

 

Ulster Rugby vs. Glasgow Warriors

Friday 12th February, 19:30

Kingspan Stadium

Guinness PRO12 – Round 14

 

Live on Sky Sports 1

 

ULSTER RUGBY

15. Stuart Olding, 14. Craig Gilroy, 13. Darren Cave, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Jacob Stockdale, 10. Sam Windsor, 9. Ruan Pienaar; 1. Callum Black, 2. Rob Herring (capt.), 3. Ricky Lutton, 4. Alan O’Connor, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Robbie Diack, 7. Sean Reidy, 8. Nick Williams.

Replacements: 16. John Andrew, 17. Kyle McCall, 18. Bronson Ross, 19. Chris Henry, 20. Roger Wilson, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Paddy Jackson, 23. Sammy Arnold.

GLASGOW WARRIORS

15. Peter Murchie, 14. Lee Jones, 13. Glenn Bryce, 12. Sam Johnson, 11. Rory Hughes, 10. Gregor Hunter, 9. Ali Price; 1. Ryan Grant, 2. Pat MacArthur, 3. Sila Puafisi, 4. Greg Peterson, 5. Leone Nakarawa, 6. Rob Harley, 7. Simone Favaro, 8. Ryan Wilson (capt.).

Replacements: 16. James Malcolm, 17. Alex Allan, 18. D’Arcy Rae, 19. Josh Strauss, 20. Chris Fusaro, 21. Grayson Hart, 22. Peter Horne, 23. Taqele Naiyaravoro.

 

Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR, 47th competition game)

Assistant Referees: Gary Conway, Paul Haycock (both IRFU)

Citing Commissioner: Eugene Ryan (IRFU)

TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)