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Anything less than victory won't wash in Wales for 'coming force' Ulster

The northern province are on the road to take on the Dragons in the United Rugby Championship today.

nick-timoney Nick Timoney captains Ulster against the Dragons this afternoon. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

NORMALLY IN GAMES like this, coaches would throw out the well-worn cliché that all opponents are dangerous. But Ulster are starting to get to a place where that no longer washes.

Dragons director of rugby Dean Ryan labelled Dan McFarland’s side a “coming force” in midweek. Ulster themselves may bristle at that, thinking they are already a force in their own right, but the point still remains: games such as today’s at Rodney Parade (2pm) are now must-wins.

In the past, a loss in a game such as this might have been written off as the province not quite being at that elite level yet, but now that excuse no longer applies. If they truly consider themselves as a top side, this is where they have to be, seeing off what are, quite frankly, inferior opponents on their way to the play-offs.

They’ve already done that at home this season, but away has been a different matter. They’ve slipped up at the Ospreys in a game they really felt they should have won, particularly since it came sandwiched in between wins at the RDS and the Stade Marcel-Michelin of all places, and defeats at Connacht and Munster will hurt for different reasons.

Dragons are not at the calibre of any of those aforementioned opponents. While their results will show that they are rarely on the end of a lopsided scoreline, the standings will also reflect that they have won just one game this season and lie a lowly 15th compared to Ulster, who could go back to the top with a win.

These are games that, if Ulster truly want to be considered contenders in the United Rugby Championship, they have to win and, ideally, win comfortably.

“You can’t afford to slip up in every game,” concedes Ulster assistant coach Roddy Grant. “We’ve already lost three, all the teams around us have lost two or three.

“You’ve got to win each game, it’s so competitive the way it’s set out. Again, any game, Cardiff is the same, Leinster is the same the week after, you’re not going to win every single game but it makes it harder if you don’t.”

Looking at the team sheets indicates only one winner too. Ulster have five of their Ireland internationals back – and, ironically, one Welsh one, too – while Dragons have none of theirs in tow.

a-view-of-rodney-parade-ahead-of-the-game Rodney Parade hosts today's meeting of the Dragons and Ulster. Source: Ashley Crowden/INPHO

By star power alone this should be a one-sided affair, although any current or former player will happily tell you how unwelcoming Rodney Parade is as an away venue, particularly with Storm Eunice whipping around Newport.

But with the likes of Robert Baloucoune and James Hume back in to add two extra dynamic presences to an already dangerous back line, and Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell and Nick Timoney returning to beef up the pack, Ulster are about as strong as they could be.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see how they respond to being released back to their province for this week, with all five likely looking at the Italy game as their most likely route into Six Nations game time. A big performance could sway Andy Farrell’s mind.

They will have to do without Duane Vermeulen, rested ahead of a heavy workload for the remainder of the season, but McFarland and Grant will no doubt use that as a challenge to see how their set piece looks without the Springbok marshalling it.

Marcus Rea looks like a player who could step up again in Vermeulen’s absence, the openside flanker in fine form, while having the athletic prowess of Cormac Izuchukwu back on the bench will also be a welcome boost.

Dragons, of course, won’t go down easily and they can still call upon dangerous players such as former Wales international Jonah Holmes, Sam Davies and Ollie Griffiths, but the depth isn’t there for the Welsh region who are still building into a more rounded squad for the future.

Ulster are on the opposite end of that scale having been through their dark days. Now they are rising up the scale, and anything less than a win – and, ideally, four tries – will not be good enough.

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DRAGONS

15. Josh Lewis; 14. Jonah Holmes, 13. Adam Warren, 12. Aneurin Owen, 11. Rio Dyer; 10. Sam Davies, 9. Gonzalo Bertranou; 1. Greg Bateman, 2. Taylor Davies, 3. Chris Coleman; 4. Joe Davies, 5. Joe Maksymiw; 6. Harri Keddie (captain), 7. Ollie Griffiths, 8. Dan Baker.

Replacements: 16. Elliot Dee, 17. Aki Seiuli, 18. Mesake Doge, 19. Huw Taylor, 20. George Young, 21. Rhodri Williams, 22. Ioan Davies, 23. Will Talbot-Davies.

ULSTER

15. Rob Lyttle; 14. Robert Baloucoune, 13. James Hume, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Ben Moxham; 10. Billy Burns, 9. Nathan Doak; 1. Andrew Warwick, 2. John Andrew, 3. Tom O’Toole; 4. Kieran Treadwell, 5. Sam Carter; 6. David McCann, 7. Marcus Rea, 8. Nick Timoney (captain).

Replacements: 16. Bradley Roberts, 17. Eric O’Sullivan, 18. Marty Moore, 19. Cormac Izuchukwu, 20. Matty Rea, 21. David Shanahan, 22. Ian Madigan, 23. Stewart Moore.

Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy)

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