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Ulster's quest to bridge the gap continues with experimental detour through the Principality

Three recent academy graduates feature in total as Dan McFarland explores his options at blindside and out-half to begin with.

Michael Lowry on the charge against Gloucester in the Champions Cup.
Michael Lowry on the charge against Gloucester in the Champions Cup.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

WITH NOTHING TO play for over the next couple of weeks, Ulster have already found themselves in dead-rubber territory as they head to the unfamiliar confines of the Principality Stadium to take on Dragons tonight (3pm).

The game has been switched from the Gwent region’s usual home of Rodney Parade as it undergoes re-surfacing to the national stadium in Cardiff, and it will prove a grand stage for a game that, externally, has no bearing on Ulster’s fortunes for neither this nor next season.

Already qualified for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup with plenty to spare and now forced to sit back and watch as Leinster go to the Guinness Pro14 final as Conference A’s representatives, the next two weeks signal a chance for Dan McFarland to take a look at what he has at his disposal.

Seven changes from the defeat to Leinster last week suggests he’s doing just that. Three recent academy graduates feature, while key figures such as Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, John Cooney, Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy get a week off to recuperate with bigger battles on the horizon.

Arguably, the key selection comes at out-half, where young Michael Lowry is inserted for only his third start there as a professional.

The 22-year-old has long been seen as Ulster’s playmaker of the future given his consistent quality performances in leading RBAI to three Schools’ Cup titles in a row, but so far he has been forced to bide his time at full-back while Billy Burns, Ian Madigan and – to a lesser extent – Bill Johnston shared time at 10.

That’s not to say he hasn’t been performing well at 15 – indeed, most within Ulster would have him first-choice in the full-back jersey now – but the consensus is still that Lowry’s long-term future lies at out-half and, as much as he expertly swats away the frequent questions over his future position, it is believed Lowry himself is eager to prove himself at 10.

Against a Dragons side that are shipping an average of just under 26 points per game, this looks an opportune time for him to prove that he can put some real pressure on Burns and Madigan. A performance with plenty of attacking intent across the entire 80 minutes would certainly turn heads.

Beyond Lowry, much of the excitement surrounds the three academy graduates, in particular Ireland U20s captain David McCann who, off the back of a string of impressive displays for Uster ‘A’, starts at blindside flanker.

Ulster have managed him strictly thus far this season, ignoring calls from eager supporters to throw him in at the deep end by instead limiting him to just one start and three appearances in all, but the expectation is that sooner rather than later he will establish himself as a regular feature in that back row. Going up against former British and Irish Lion Ross Moriarty will be a real test of his talents.

david-mccann-and-david-hawkshaw David McCann takes on Leinster's David Hawkshaw in an 'A' game. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The other two, loosehead Callum Reid and winger Ethan McIlroy, will be called upon from the bench. The latter is now a well known commodity after his string of starts over the festive period, but the abrasive Reid will be keen to make his mark on the squad in the absence of both Jack McGrath (injured) and Andrew Warwick (suspended).

Jacob Stockdale will look to do some impressing of his own, although not in a provincial sense. The Ulster winger will feel – rightly or wrongly – that he should be in Edinburgh tomorrow rather than Cardiff tonight and will be eager to put in a performance that proves that. He inherits the full-back jersey vacated by Lowry.

Stuart McCloskey is in the same boat at inside centre. However, at this stage, he has become a more permanent fixture back at his province than at Carton House. Indeed, there is a fair argument that more attention will be given to his centre partner Stewart Moore, the Ireland ’20s stand-out who is still to have that real breakthrough moment after several hugely promising appearances at the start of the season.

Some may argue that McFarland’s chopping and changing hasn’t gone far enough. After all, the exciting Cormac Izuchukwu sits on the bench again while the lock pairing of Alan O’Connor and Kieran Treadwell – two relatively known quantities by this stage – remains unchanged for the fourth week running. Giving 18-year-old scrum-half Nathan Doak a shot from the bench was perhaps an option, too.

But this is still a line-up that has generated a fair amount of excitement within Ulster and, as they face their first week since their latest elimination from a competition by Leinster, the search for answers as to how to bridge the gap begins again in earnest. The hope is that at out-half and blindside flanker, they have two of the keys to finally doing so.

On the other side, Dragons are still in the hunt for a Heineken Champions Cup spot, either automatically by leapfrogging rivals Ospreys into third or, more likely, via a play-off by jumping ahead of Glasgow Warriors, who are just a point ahead of them in fourth.

In that regard, Dean Ryan has called upon his big-hitters for the clash at Principality Stadium, with former Lions Moriarty, Jamie Roberts and Richard Hibbard in tow, along with the likes of Wales internationals Jonah Holmes and Nick Tompkins. This could be a week where the team that wants it more has a real edge that could sway the tie.

McFarland claimed in Ulster’s midweek press briefing that the result still mattered to the province, but the likelihood is that he’ll be far more interested in how his fringe stars stack up when given the chance to impress. Defeat wouldn’t be anything to be overly concerned about, but a decidedly off-colour performance would raise more than a few questions.

Dead-rubber? Not quite.

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stewart-moore-celebrates-scoring-a-try-with-michael-lowry Stewart Moore celebrating a try against Edinburgh with Michael Lowry. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

Ulster Rugby

15. Jacob Stockdale
14. Craig Gilroy
13. Stewart Moore
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Rob Lyttle
10. Michael Lowry
9. Alby Mathewson
1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. John Andrew
3. Ross Kane
4. Alan O’Connor (Captain)
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. David McCann
7. Sean Reidy
8. Nick Timoney

Replacements:

16. Brad Roberts
17. Callum Reid
18. Gareth Milasinovich
19. Cormac Izuchukwu
20. Matty Rea
21. David Shanahan
22. Ian Madigan
23. Ethan McIlroy

Dragons

15. Josh Lewis
14. Jonah Holmes
13. Aneurin Owen
12. Jamie Roberts
11. Rio Dyer
10. Sam Davies
9. Rhodri Williams (Captain)

1. Brok Harris
2. Richard Hibbard
3. Lloyd Fairbrother
4. Joe Davies
5. Joe Maksymiw
6. Harrison Keddie
7. Ollie Griffiths
8. Ross Moriarty

Replacements:

16. Rhys Lawrence
17. Josh Reynolds
18. Aaron Jarvis
19. Matthew Screech
20. Ben Carter
21. Dan Baker
22. Gonzalo Bertranou
23. Nick Tompkins

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