Ulster look well-placed to mount another strong challenge for RaboDirect PRO12 this term, but can they make it four opening round victories in successive years when they open away to the Dragons?
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, September 6
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS v ULSTER, Rodney Parade, 7.15pm (live BBC red button/BBC Sport NI website)
Team News: Ulster head coach Mark Ancombe has named his team for the province’s first RaboDirect PRO12 game of the season against Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade on Friday
The selection of Paddy Jackson at out-half is the only change to the back-line that began last weekend’s pre-season friendly against Leicester Tigers.
Jared Payne starts at full-back with Andrew Trimble and David McIlwaine lining out on the wings. Chris Farrell and Luke Marshall are selected in the centre with Paul Marshall named at scrum half.
Callum Black and Ricky Lutton start in the front row either side of hooker Rob Herring. Team captain Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy are paired together in the second row with Robbie Diack, Chris Henry and Roger Wilson making up the back row.
Nick Williams, selected as the league’s best player last season, was not available for selection as he has returned to New Zealand for family reasons.
The game will be shown live via the BBC red button and online on the BBC Sport NI website.
Meanwhile, Wales international and Dragons skipper Andrew Coombs will lead the regional side when they host Ulster in the first round of the new league season.
This will be Coombs’ first official duty as Dragons skipper as he leads the side out at Rodney Parade.
There are new faces in the starting line-up with Richie Rees, Rhys Thomas and Matthew Screech taking their places in the team, while Francisco Chaparro, Netani Talei and Kris Burton are on the bench.
Hallam Amos also moves from full-back to the left wing as Tom Prydie reverts to the right side of the back-three. The centre pairing remains similar to last season’s as Jack Dixon and Pat Leach are paired together.
Talking of facing Ulster, Dragons director of rugby Lyn Jones said: “To be the best you’ve got to play against the best, we can’t measure ourselves against the lower end of the league, we want to compete and be at the top. To do that we need to perform and learn from playing the best.”
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS: Dan Evans; Tom Prydie, Pat Leach, Jack Dixon, Hallam Amos; Jason Tovey, Richie Rees; Aaron Coundley, Rhys Thomas, Dan Way, Matthew Screech, Andrew Coombs (capt), Jevon Groves, Nic Cudd, Lewis Evans.
Replacements: Hugh Gustafson, Phil Price, Francisco Chaparro, Adam Jones, Netani Talei, Jonathan Evans, Kris Burton, Ross Wardle.
ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall, Chris Farrell, David McIlwaine; Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Callum Black, Rob Herring, Ricky Lutton, Johann Muller (capt), Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Niall Annett, Tom Court, Declan Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson, Sean Doyle, Ian Porter, James McKinney, Darren Cave.
Referee: Claudio Blessano (Italy)
Assistant Referees: Leighton Hodges, Neil Hennessy (both Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Newport Gwent Dragons to win: 15/8; Draw: 22/1; Ulster to win: 2/5
Pre-Match Quotes: Mark Anscombe (Ulster) – “I’m excited but you’re always excited at the start of the year and we have worked hard for the last eight-odd weeks. We’ve had a clean bill of health up to now and the players are looking forward to their first hit-out.
“It is never easy over there (at Rodney Parade) for us and it will be a good challenge for us to get our season up and running from the start.
“We have been fortunate that we have had the good weather and only a little bit of rain, pre-season has gone well and the squad is in good spirits and excited about the challenge.
“In the pre-season games we just wanted to try a few things, it’s about getting game-time because you can train and train but some guys you just need to get them out on the track and build up some mileage on the game clock, we have managed to do that and now we’ll look to what we need to do against the Dragons.
“The Dragons have strengthened their squad and strengthened their coaching department and it is going to be a quite a battle over there in Newport.
“Our away form was good last year and the challenge this year is to match that, each year teams with get better and stronger from their recruitment so last year counts for nothing. It’s a fresh season and we just have to concentrate on preparing for the Dragons.”
Darren Edwards (Newport Gwent Dragons) – “Pre-season has been good, we’ve had a lot of changes in the coaching teams and within the squad of players – and with change it creates a lot of optimism.
“You’ve got to be honest and reflect on how the season has been, in terms of our expectations it didn’t go as well as we wanted it to.
“Inevitably change needs to happen, I firmly believe the changes that have taken place are for the greater good and are a positive and I think everybody sees that.
“You have to address things with a squad of players, they weren’t strong enough. Therefore we have had to recruit and make those positions stronger so a competitive squad can be reflected on the field.
“Behind the scenes from a coaching point of view, we’ve got a new director of rugby Lyn Jones and Kingsley (Jones) coaching the forwards, both very experienced men who are used to dealing with the pressures of the game and coming from a different competition gives a new perspective.
“We’re taking it week by week, it’s a new squad and new coaches and were going to find a lot of things out about each other as time goes on. I think it’s stimulating and hopefully the journey we go on will be positive and enjoyable too.”
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Thursday, March 18, 2010 – Ulster 25 Newport Gwent Dragons 23, Ravenhill
Friday, May 6, 2011 – Newport Gwent Dragons 13 Ulster 20, Rodney Parade
Friday, September 30, 2011 – Newport Gwent Dragons 22 Ulster 9, Rodney Parade
Friday, February 10, 2012 – Ulster 30 Newport Gwent Dragons 12, Ravenhill
Friday, October 26, 2012 – Newport Gwent Dragons 19 Ulster 46, Rodney Parade
Friday, April 12, 2013 – Ulster 31 Newport Gwent Dragons 5, Ravenhill
– The Newport Gwent Dragons beat Zebre in round one of the RaboDirect PRO12 last season, the only time they have begun a new campaign with maximum points
– The Dragons won just one of their last six matches during the 2012/13 campaign, 30-24 at home to Munster on April 19
– Ulster, who were beaten in last May’s PRO12 decider, have started the new season with a victory in each of the past three campaigns
– The Ulstermen’s only defeat to a Welsh region in their last ten such meetings was 16-12 at home to Ospreys on February 8 earlier this year
– The men of Gwent have beaten Ulster just once since the opening round of the 2009/10 season: 22-9 at Rodney Parade on September 30, 2011