Ulster Rugby vs Ospreys



NO more warm-up games, no more mass substitutions to confuse the untutored spectator, this evening the marathon that is Ulster’s rugby season begins in steely earnest.

matter how diluted – the lock admitted it gave all at Swansea some confidence en route for Belfast. Wingers Dafydd Howells and Kristian Williams crossed for tries in London, Dan Evans was impressive at fullback, and with outhalf Sam Davies kicking well the Ospreys ‘machine’ looked in good running order, though Ashley believes Ulster poses an entirely different and much more difficult proposition. Home supporters will hope that he is correct in his assessment of Doak’s squad, which has been in intensive pre-season training for over two months, and everyone who’s fit is ‘biting at the bit’ to get a starting place. Newcomer Sam Windsor has had two outings as a replacement at outhalf and appears to be ready to step in for Ian Humphreys, injured in Edinburgh, important now that Paddy Jackson is in the World Cup ‘mix’. What Doak and Tandy will demand this evening as the PRO12 fires into action is a performance from their respective sides, but they won’t deny that posting a first win in the league is very much a target. For the first six matches in the competition that other tournament – the World Cup! - will keep some big-name players out of the picture, but Doak in particular has planned meticulously to prepare a new generation to get, and take, the chance to be part of what he is determined will be a season when the side is challenging in the league and Champions Cup. So, it’s upon those given places in the starting XV and on the benches who will want to impress individually and collectively, for it is vital that by the end of October Ulster and Ospreys have built launchpads for the assault on the PRO12 and in Europe. For Ulster, thoughts of the Champions Cup can wait in the short term, the task is for those with limited experience in the white jersey at the top level gel with the more battle-hardened quickly, that Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Paul Marshall, Humphreys, Wiehann Herbst, Rob Herring, Franco van der Merwe, Robbie Diack, Roger Wilson and Nick Williams, for example, lead the charge. What Doak is at pains to insist is that the group of players at his disposal is the best he can have, and he is more than happy at the calibre of his

Ospreys arrive in Belfast to pose the first competitive challenge to Neil Doak’s side as the Guinness PRO12 campaign explodes into action. The Welsh club has been, like the host, a constant challenger for honours, and with huge investment and commitment its Liberty Stadium home in Swansea consistently stages big games in both league and in Europe. It has boasted a roster of top-class players for over a decade, and Wales relies heavily on Ospreys to fuel its World Cup challenge – and no fewer than nine from the club were in the match day squad which inflicted a rare defeat on Ireland in Dublin last Saturday. Ulster’s contribution to Ireland’s cause is no less considerable in terms of the calibre of players Joe Schmidt has assembled - congratulations to Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Jared Payne, Paddy Jackson, Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry - and that means that great responsibility is vested in those who have been waiting to grab the opportunity to become serious factors as the hunt for silverware takes high priority this season. Of course we’ll all have a keen eye on the World Cup being staged on our doorstep, but for all the players involved this evening at Kingspan Stadium that has to be set aside for the primary target: getting an optimum points return from the first six matches in a PRO12 league of increasing quality. Although the two friendlies at home to Leinster and in Edinburgh last weekend didn’t produce a win of more importance was the opportunity for Head Coach Doak and assistants Joe Barakat, Allen Clarke and Niall Malone to analyse in detail just how individuals, partnerships and units were ready to perform in the cauldron of a competitive match. A flood of players were used at Kingspan Stadium a fortnight ago when Leinster edged the victory, and 26 were involved at Goldenacre, a sign that perhaps there was increasing clarity about the first- choice line-up. Ospreys, with Steve Tandy at the coaching helm and with Gruff Rees and Chris Gibbes with specific responsibilities for the backs and the forwards respectively, chose to play just one friendly game before the PRO12 opened. And while stand-in skipper Lloyd Ashley cautioned against reading too much into the result, a 23-16 win at Saracens - no



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