BKT United Rugby Championship: Ulster v Connacht (tonight, 7.35pm, BBC2 NI & TG4)
The BKT URC roars into action tonight with Connacht the first visitors of the season to the Kingspan Stadium.
Matchday one is maybe somewhat of an unusual timeslot for an inter-provincial derby, but it’s highly unlikely that the timing of the fixture is going to tame the intensity of the battle as both sides aim to get their campaign’s off to a winning start.
The derby element certainly adds spice to the encounter but as head coach Dan McFarland alludes to, it’s all about getting back onto the field and a return to action.
“It’s interesting to have an interpro up first in the season, but the players are just looking forward to playing - full-stop, but the interpro element adds something a little bit extra," he said.
“We have the attitude that it’s a great opportunity for us to test what we’ve been doing in pre-season, given what they offer around their line speed, relentless defence, and endless attack. Those are the areas that are going to test.”
Ulster will start as firm favourites for the win but they don’t have to go too far back in time to remind themselves that Connacht wins in Belfast aren’t as rare as they once were.
After a winless run spanning fifty-six years, recently the westerners have bloodied the nose of their northern neighbours twice on their home turf. So, there’s no doubt McFarland will be keen to remind his players that home advantage does not guarantee success.
For tonight’s joust, McFarland welcomes back speedsters Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune.
Stockdale has endured a horrid 12 months since his only appearance last season against Glasgow but showed that he is well on the road to recovery by scoring on his return in the pre-season friendly against Exeter two weeks ago.
Alan O’Connor will captain the side from second row while there is a debut for Tom Stewart in the front row.
Hooker Stewart was named as Danske Bank Schools Player of the Year 2019 and is someone that could go on to challenge for international honours in the coming years.
After winning their opening four games last season with four bonus points to boot, Ulster were firmly put down on their backside when they came up against Connacht at the Aviva Stadium.
Inspired by Jack Carty and Mack Hansen, Andy Friend’s outfit blew Ulster away by a 36-11 scoreline.
If Connacht are to come away with anything close to that result from last October they’ll have to do without that dynamic duo.
Now one of the great entertainers of the URC, Connacht’s main objective this season will be to tighten up a porous defence.
So often last season they thrilled many observers with their attacking play, but only to end up frustrating their own followers by conceding as many as they scored.
To help aid this Director of Rugby Andy Friend has brought in a number of new faces, including four from Leinster, but it won’t be enough to stop Ulster from recording an opening night win.