Ulster will be the last Irish province in action on the opening weekend of the new Magners League season. The Brian McLaughlin era will get underway in earnest on Sunday afternoon when the Ulstermen take on the Dragons at Rodney Parade, a venue they have not won at since September 2006.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Sunday, September 6
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS v ULSTER, Rodney Parade, 2.05pm (live Setanta Sports Ireland/BBC Wales)
Team News: Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has finalised his team and replacements for the province’s opening game of the Magners League season against the Newport Gwent Dragons.
New coach McLaughlin has made just one change to the Ulster team that defeated Worcester Warriors 25-3 at Sixways Stadium last week in their third and final pre-season friendly.
Ireland Under-20 international Nevin Spence has been replaced by Scottish flyer Simon Danielli, who has overcome illness to take the left wing berth.
Paddy Wallace, who also took ill last week and missed the Worcester game, is fit enough for a bench role alongside fellow Test player Darren Cave.
The Ulster pack is unchanged with recent signings Andy Kyriacou and Dan Tuohy and Ballynahinch starlet Willie Faloon all poised to make their competitive debuts for the province.
Ryan Caldwell has shaken off a dead leg to start in the second row, while back rower Chris Henry will continue as stand-in captain in the absence of injured hooker Rory Best.
Meanwhile, Dragons coach Paul Turner has named his side for the opening match of the league campaign.
Gethin Robinson and Hugh Gustafson both come onto the bench to replace Phil Price and Ben Castle who have both picked up injuries.
Turner said: “Although we do have a few players on our injury list, they are for the most part returning to play imminently so I’m feeling positive about the start of the season.
“Obviously losing Ben Castle and Phil Price in the front row is a blow but we are in good shape for the start of the season.”
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS: Jason Tovey; Aled Brew, Tom Riley, Ashley Smith, Richard Fussell; James Arlidge, Wayne Evans; Ali McKenzie, Tom Willis (capt), Nigel Hall, Adam Jones, Luke Charteris, Dan Lydiate, Gavin Thomas, Joe Bearman.
Replacements: Hugh Gustafson, Steve Jones, Gethin Robinson, Rob Sidoli, Grant Webb, Martyn Thomas, Alex Walker.
ULSTER: Bryn Cunningham; Timoci Nagusa, Andrew Trimble, Ian Whitten, Simon Danielli; Ian Humphreys, Isaac Boss; Bryan Young, Andy Kyriacou, BJ Botha, Dan Tuohy, Ryan Caldwell, Chris Henry (capt), Willie Faloon, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Declan Fitzpatrick, Ed O’Donoghue, Thomas Anderson, Paul Marshall, Paddy Wallace, Darren Cave.
Referee: Carlo Damasco (Italy)
Assistant Referees: Phil Fear, Neil Perkins (both Wales)
Television Match Official: Huw Lewis (Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Newport Gwent Dragons to win: 8/15; Draw: 20/1; Ulster to win: 6/4
Say What: Brian McLaughlin (Ulster) – “We’re very, very pleased (with the pre-season and the work put in). We’ve now given everybody a go in the friendlies and we’re in a position of strength from a squad point of view.
“We know there are people who have put their hand up and shown that they are capable of stepping up.
“The positive thing is the 25-3 win in Worcester which has given us the confidence to go away and play.
“If you go to the Dragons and Ospreys with a nice win against Worcester under your belt, that’s a nice way to be travelling.
“We’re not kidding ourselves – we have work to do and we have a long way to go. But we are making progress.
“Worcester had more or less their full strength side out, with three internationals in their back-three alone – Chris Latham, Miles Benjamin and Marcel Garvey there.
“So they were very, very strong and having been able to deal with that has given us confidence.
“We’re going to the Dragons to do our best, obviously, and we’ll be giving everything to try and come home with a win.”
Tom Willis (Newport Gwent Dragons) – “We want to be a better team than we were last year. That is individually and as a team.
“If we can deliver that the results will look after themselves and we should move up the table.
“We definitely have a different look about us, especially in the forwards, and we have some great depth.
“We are a bit light in other areas but the overall strength-in-depth of our squad has improved for the new season.
“We do want to put a bit more width on our game and be more ambitious, and I want us to play what we see in front of us more.
“We did that a bit last season but we do need to play rugby with pace and tempo.
“We’re a team growing every season and we are learning what we have to do against certain teams we play.”
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, September 9, 2006 – Newport Gwent Dragons 25 Ulster 32, Rodney Parade
Friday, February 16, 2007 – Ulster 14 Newport Gwent Dragons 7, Ravenhill
Saturday, October 6, 2007 – Newport Gwent Dragons 31 Ulster 11, Rodney Parade
Friday, February 15, 2008 – Ulster 38 Newport Gwent Dragons 13, Ravenhill
Friday, September 19, 2008 – Ulster 14 Newport Gwent Dragons 16, Ravenhill
Sunday, February 22, 2009 – Newport Gwent Dragons 26 Ulster 16, Rodney Parade
– Despite slipping up 12-6 at home to Glasgow in round one of the Magners League last season, the Newport Gwent Dragons have still won their opening game in three of the last four years
– The Dragons have won three of their last four games at Rodney Parade
– Ulster have also won their opening game of a new season in three of the past four years, the loss being their 16-9 defeat to the Scarlets last September
– Ulster have lost their last eleven matches against the Welsh regions in the Magners League
– The Dragons have won three of their last four games against the Ulstermen, whilst Ulster have not won at Rodney Parade since a 32-25 victory in the Magners League in September 2006