Ulster make their Magners League return at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons, having opened 2010 with three straight wins over Munster, Edinburgh and Bath. The Dragons scored a season’s double over Ulster last season and won 23-6 when the sides met at Rodney Parade in September.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Friday, February 19
ULSTER (6th) v NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS (7th), Ravenhill, 7.05pm (live Setanta Sports Ireland/BBC Wales)
Team News: Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has named his starting line-up and replacements for Friday’s Magners League encounter with the Newport Gwent Dragons.
Rory Best will make his return for Ulster, starting as hooker for the first time since last May.
A serious neck injury was set to rule Best out for the entire season, but he has made a remarkable recovery to feature as a replacement in Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations openers against Italy and France.
Best will take the place of Nigel Brady in the Ulster starting line-up, with the recent Ireland Wolfhounds debutant dropping to the replacements bench.
With flanker Stephen Ferris on Ireland duty, Thomas Anderson will don the number 6 jersey, joining David Pollock and team captain Chris Henry in a combative back row.
Ian Humphreys also returns to the Ulster side at out-half, after helping the Ireland Wolfhounds to a 34-19 win over Scotland ‘A’ at Ravenhill recently.
Commenting on the Dragons game, coach McLaughlin said: “It’s a vital game for us on Friday night. The Dragons are sitting on the same points as us in the Magners League, so it’s a game that we must win.
“Whenever we played them at Rodney Parade, at the start of the season, they out muscled us, they beat us around the contact area, so we have a few scores to settle.
“I’m hopeful on Friday night, at Ravenhill, that we can come out and show how much we’ve improved, as the season has progressed.
“We’re looking forward to getting back out in front of a home crowd, after the fantastic support we received away against Bath. At Ravenhill this season, the fans have been great every match we’ve played, so we’re expecting the exact same this week.”
Meanwhile, Wales Under-20 international Jason Tovey is set to start at out-half for the Dragons following his strong performances in the LV= Cup last month, with Martyn Thomas retaining the number 15 jersey.
Welsh lock Luke Charteris will return to captain the Dragons, with his Wales team-mate Danny Lydiate lining up in the back row.
Following his efforts against both the Ospreys and Saracens, Will Harries returns from the Las Vegas leg of the IRB Sevens circuit with Wales to start on the right wing.
It is all change in the visitors’ midfield as Tom Riley comes in for Matthew Watkins and Rhodri Gomer Davies replaces Ashley Smith at number 12.
ULSTER: Jamie Smith; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Simon Danielli; Ian Humphreys, Isaac Boss; Bryan Young, Rory Best, BJ Botha, Dan Tuohy, Ed O’Donoghue, Thomas Anderson, David Pollock, Chris Henry (capt).
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Declan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Caldwell, Robbie Diack, Ian Porter, Ian Whitten, Timoci Nagusa.
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS: Martyn Thomas; Will Harries, Tom Riley, Rhodri Gomer Davies, Aled Brew; Jason Tovey; Wayne Evans; Hugh Gustafson, Steve Jones, Pat Palmer, Rob Sidoli, Luke Charteris (capt), Danny Lydiate, Gavin Thomas, Grant Webb.
Replacements: Tom Willis, Ben Castle, Adam Jones, James Harris, Matthew Watkins, James Arlidge, James Leadbeater.
Referee: Peter Allan (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Alan Rogan, Kevin Beggs (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/6; Draw: 20/1; Newport Gwent Dragons to win: 7/2
Pre-Match Quotes: Chris Henry (Ulster) – “I am over the moon to be honest that Rory (Best) is back, he makes a massive difference. Already this week you can see that everyone has lifted their game, to have someone of his quality back in the squad is fantastic.
“So, there is no doubt Rory will be a great asset on Friday night. It is a massive boost and everyone is really glad to have him back.
“Of course, obviously with the Heineken Cup ending in the way it did, everyone was very disappointed that we never progressed in the quarter-finals or into the Amlin Challenge Cup. So this is another opportunity, we are still in the mix to make the top four, and every single point counts.
“We know they are a very strong Dragons side, full of confidence, having recently beaten Saracens, and they are definitely on the up this year, probably much like ourselves.
“Both teams are coming into a good stage of the season and I think Friday will be a very challenging game.
“Obviously there have been players away on Ireland duty, or with the Wolfhounds and the Ravens, so we have all been doing different things.
“I think that we have regrouped very well this week, the focus is definitely back on Ulster duty, and making sure that we give our all on Friday night and get something out of this game.
“Ultimately that is what we need now, we need to get the win, and everyone is just very excited and looking forward to playing.”
Paul Turner (Newport Gwent Dragons) – “Friday night is important for us to maintain a surge. It is important we put in a good performance against Ulster.
“We are coming into the business end of the season and it is never easy, especially with the time lapse between games. So, it is difficult to maintain some form of rhythm and continuity.
“We are well aware of the challenge awaiting us at Ravenhill. It is always a difficult place to go and we will be well aware of that on Friday night.
“We have has some success over Ulster in the last three matches with one of them being at Ravenhill. We are aware of Ulster’s potency.
“They are very strong up front and their half-backs are probably the form pair in Irish rugby at the moment. They play a good wide game and have some great outside backs and inside centres.”
Top Scorers – 2009/10 Magners League: Ulster – Points: Ian Humphreys 83; Tries: Simon Danielli 4; Newport Gwent Dragons – Points: James Arlidge 62; Tries: Aled Brew 4
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
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
Sunday, September 6, 2009 – Newport Gwent Dragons 23 Ulster 6, Rodney Parade
– Ulster have won all three matches they have played in 2010. Their only defeat at Ravenhill since September was a 25-13 loss to Glasgow Warriors in the Magners League on December 4
– The Newport Gwent Dragons have won their last two games in the LV= Cup, but in the Magners League they have suffered back-to-back defeats at the hands of the Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets
– The Dragons’ only away win so far in the Magners League this season was a 9-8 victory over Edinburgh at Murrayfield on November 1
– Ulster have lost their last three matches against the Newport Gwent Dragons