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Backline brimming with quality, Ulster aim for third consecutive Pro12 win

Les Kiss’ men welcome the Scarlets to Kingspan Stadium this evening.

HAVING OPENED THEIR Pro12 season with wins over the Dragons and Treviso, Ulster are aiming to make it three from three against the Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium this evening [KO 7.05pm, BBC NI].

The Welsh region, for their part, have suffered two defeats in the opening rounds.

Backline quality

Ulster’s backline alone is enough to make this an attractive fixture. An All Black fullback, four Ireland internationals, an 88-times capped Springbok and another South African who once featured in a national team training camp.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding celebrate after the game Olding and Jackson both start this evening. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Charles Piutau, Craig Gilroy, Stuart Olding, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik, Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar could create magic in Belfast tonight.

Olding shifts to outside centre – having played at 12 last weekend – where his creativity and excellent attacking skills should be effective. Piutau’s return to the 15 shirt is thrilling too, particularly with memories of his remarkable season with Wasps so fresh in the memory.

With Pienaar having run the show in the opening two rounds, Jackson’s first appearance of the season is intriguing. The out-half was largely excellent on Ireland’s tour of South Africa and will expect to be an even more dominant figure at Ulster this season.

What about the pack?

It seems to be the question around Ulster this season. There is little doubt about the quality of the star-studded and deep backline options, but many wonder if the current set of Ulster forwards is good enough to allow them to compete for trophies.

Rob Herring celebrates scoring Rob Herring is a menace at the breakdown. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

On paper, the eight picked for this evening’s clash is not headline-making but then some of the most effective forward units in club rugby are not. The Highlanders won their 2015 Super Rugby title thanks in large part to a pack that was short on glamour but high on intelligence, work rate and technical nous.

Clive Ross has had a superb start to the season for Ulster, while Alan O’Connor has looked like exploding to a new level for some time now. Rob Herring’s status in Ulster and repeated involvements with Ireland underline his quality.

These are the forwards who must demonstrate that the lack of a big name does not necessarily mean big Pro12 performances won’t come.

The likes of Iain Henderson, Franco van der Merwe [both on the bench this evening] and Marcell Coetzee have the profile, but others can grow their own early in the season.

Kiss’ attack

Director of rugby Les Kiss is keen for Ulster to be clearly identifiable as a team that plays with creativity and pace in attack, although that will never come at the expense of the foundational elements of defence and kicking.

Les Kiss Kiss and Neil Doak are superb at planning set-piece attack. Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

Nonetheless, this backline and a relatively mobile pack can underline Ulster’s attacking gifts this evening.

There is footwork and dynamism galore behind the scrum, while the likes of Rodney Ah You, O’Connor and Peter Browne are more than capable of throwing accurate passes in phase play.

If those elements can combine comfortably, we may get an early-season demonstration of Ulster’s pure attacking potential. They have enjoyed the best start to the campaign of any of the Irish provinces, and this is another opportunity to pull ahead.

Ulster:

15. Charles Piutau
14. Craig Gilroy
13. Stuart Olding
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Louis Ludik
10. Paddy Jackson
9. Ruan Pienaar

1. Callum Black
2. Rob Herring (captain)
3. Rodney Ah You
4. Pete Browne
5. Alan O’Connor
6. Clive Ross
7. Sean Reidy
8. Robbie Diack

Replacements:

16. John Andrew
17. Andrew Warwick
18. Ross Kane
19. Franco van der Merwe
20. Iain Henderson
21. Angus Lloyd
22. Luke Marshall
23. Rob Lyttle

Scarlets:

15. Aled Thomas
14. Liam Williams
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Hadleigh Parkes
11. Steff Evans
10. Rhys Patchell
9. Gareth Davies

1. Wyn Jones
2. Ken Owens (captain)
3. Werner Kruger
4. Jake Ball
5. David Bulbring
6. Lewis Rawlins
7. James Davies
8. John Barclay

Replacements:

16. Ryan Elias
17. Luke Garrett
18. Peter Edwards
19. Tadhg Beirne
20. Will Boyde
21. Aled Davies
22. Scott Williams
23. Steff Hughes

Referee: Ben Whitehouse [WRU].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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