Ulster make take their chances against Scarlets - Neil Doak
Guinness PRO12: Ulster v Scarlets (Sunday, Kingspan Stadium, 2.30pm)
ON A run of four straight wins, top of the PRO12, Ulster are having to deal with the pressure of expectation.
It’s certainly preferable to be where they are, at the top of the mountain looking down, especially considering the worries that began to envelop this campaign when they lost to Munster over Christmas.
There is very little separating the top six at present and Ulster will need to maintain their current form, starting with the visit of Scarlets to the Kingspan on Sunday afternoon.
While they have taken eight points from their last two outings, it’s been edgy stuff in seeing off Glasgow and Newport Gwent Dragons. Ulster have created plenty, but their failure to finish teams off is going to prove costly soon if it is not rectified, according to head coach Neil Doak.
“If you look at last weekend, we created numerous opportunities. You say to the guys ‘try your best not to score’, they’d probably end up scoring," Doak said.
“Little things just fell the wrong side and that was the frustration. We played pretty well at times and got ourselves in the right areas. If we’re sitting here and not creating opportunities, there’d be a real sense of frustration. The only frustration is that we’re just not finishing off.
“We played Scarlets quite a few times last year and they’ve been open games. If you look at the game at the weekend, if we don’t complete some of the stuff we created against Glasgow, Scarlets can score tries and cause you problems.
“They are trying to build on that foundation from the early part of the year. They have a big pack and can put you under some serious pressure at set pieces. They’re quite fortunate to have three international nines and they can cause problems. They want to chase you around the corner and keep an up-tempo game. We want that as well, but we want to make sure it’s on our terms and not get too loose and play into their hands.”
With Rory Best still Ireland-tied - along with Andrew Trimble, Jared Payne and Stuart McCloskey - and Rob Herring out with a hamstring injury, John Andrew will make his first senior start at hooker. The absence of Best and Herring also means Paddy Jackson captains the side for the first time. He will be paired at half-back by Paul Marshall, with Ruan Pienaar named among the subs. He had suffered a knock in last weekend’s win over Glasgow, but passed RTP protocols and is named in Ulster’s 23.
Les Kiss will welcome back Chris Henry as expected for the Scarlets’ visit, alongside whom Roger Wilson will make his 200th appearance for the province in the back-row. Stuart Olding continues at full-back, with Luke Marshall reintroduced alongside Darren Cave in midfield after being released from international duty.
Scarlets travel with Welsh half-back duo Aled Thomas and Aled Davies released for duty, the former having come off the bench last week to kick the winning penalty in their 22-21 win over Edinburgh.
The Welsh side won the reverse fixture 22-12 back in September, but their head coach Wayne Pivac is wary of allowing Ulster to get into their rhythm: "It's important to get a good start; we don't want to be chasing the game, they're a really good crowd and get behind the side," he said.
“We will be looking to chip away at the scoreboard and stay in the game. Hopefully, we'll get some reasonable weather and try to score some tries."