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Ulster's exciting all-Irish team to give a glimpse of the future

Dan McFarland has picked a promising young side for tonight’s clash with Zebre.

Ulster's Michael Lowry and Robert Baloucoune.
Ulster's Michael Lowry and Robert Baloucoune.

HOW MUCH HAVE Ulster improved over the last few years? According to Marty Moore, the atmosphere at Kingspan Stadium is like night and day between when he first joined and now.

“We’re a stronger side,” insists the former Ireland tighthead, who joined Ulster in 2018. “The biggest part of that, or the easiest way to judge it, is the depth. We’re much more as of a seasoned squad even from just 12 months ago.”

A cursory glance at Ulster’s team to face Zebre tonight [KO 8.15pm, eir Sport 2], which boasts a contingent of young players who are likely to form the core of the province’s squad over the next few years – and, crucially, they are all Irish – makes it hard to argue with his assessment.

In fact, you need not look further than numbers 15 to 10 to see the burgeoning young talent at Dan McFarland’s disposal. Of those six players, Rob Lyttle is the oldest at 24 years and 50 days old and yet you could easily make an argument for any one of the men that start alongside him to feature in a high-stakes game for Ulster.

Michael Lowry, still just 22, gets a second week in a row to try and stake a claim for more game time at fly-half, but is equally adept at fullback. Robert Baloucoune, 23, is being talked about as a potential Ireland call-up. Even on the bench, centre/winger Ben Moxham is just 19-years-old and still in the Ulster sub-academy.

In the forwards, things are tentatively heading in a similar direction after years of muddling through journeymen in key positions.

Cormac Izuchukwu, the Ireland Sevens star recruited into the academy at the start of the season, makes his first start aged 21. David McCann, the Ireland U20s captain who is earmarked for bigger things, is still just 20 and starts at number eight. On the bench, replacement props Callum Reid and Tom O’Toole are both 22, the latter already in the Ireland squad.

There’s still that experienced core – the likes of Moore himself, Jordi Murphy, and John Cooney all return – as Dan McFarland tries to play his key figures into form ahead of the Challenge Cup last-16 tie with Harlequins, but what tonight does is offer a window into the future, a glimpse of what is hopefully to come for Ulster fans if these players progress and develop as believed. While they are still missing that key ingredient – experience – the raw potential is there to be cultivated and delivered upon.

And yet it is worth remembering that Ulster are only in this position of being able to blood these young players because they have nothing to play for in the Guinness Pro14. A distant second to Leinster in Conference A, their final position was secured as soon as first was put beyond their reach.

“It’s unfortunate, we have that great win percentage, but six weeks ago we knew it would come down to bonus points and we needed to beat Leinster,” adds Moore, reflecting back to their 38-19 loss to their rivals at Kingspan Stadium two weeks ago.

“We can’t complain to anyone about the situation. It wasn’t something that we were only made aware of last weekend after the game. We’re fully aware of it when we miss some opportunities over the last few weeks.

marty-moore Moore is one of the experienced heads in the team. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“We got some good wins over Ospreys and Glasgow but not finishing those teams off the way we should have and getting the bonus points has led to the position we’re in.”

Therein lies the crux of the issue for Ulster. The talent is starting to come through at Kingspan Stadium – albeit the pack perhaps still needs a bit of refinement and grunt in the absence of Iain Henderson and Marcell Coetzee – but adding that killer instinct that Leinster possess is still top of their wish list.

Had they seen off Glasgow and the Ospreys in the first two games after the break, they would have come into the Leinster game still with their destiny in their own hands. Instead, they had to chase the game and it inevitably got away from them.

That will be the challenge Dan McFarland will lay down to his young stars tonight against a Zebre side that should pose little resistance in Belfast. Learn how to get it done when the pressure is off and the hope is that it will translate to when they do need to find that crucial fourth try in a future game.

It is something they already know they need to do, according to Moore, but they have to turn words into action. And while you could argue that started last week when they put four tries past the Dragons, the prop believes that mindset has already started to form.

“I was new when Dan started and there’s been a change in how we approach almost everything in the organisation, and I think for the better,” opines the former Leinster man.

“Even things up to a few months ago, we were still tweaking our training weeks and things. There’s constant improvement and change, whether it be the athletic department or the coaches in how we train and what we focus on. I think it’s definitely showing on the pitch.

“We’re a club that, in the past, maybe would have gone to Glasgow and Ospreys and been happy with a win. Now we’re a team that’s kind of disappointed if we don’t come away with a bonus-point win.

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“That’s not the most positive of thoughts to be having but it shows the mindset change of the squad and the expectations that we have for ourselves from 18 to 24 months ago.”

Expectations are one thing, delivering on them is another. Tonight, the next generation get one of their first chances to prove that they can.

Ulster: Ethan McIlroy; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Rob Lyttle; Michael Lowry, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, John Andrew, Marty Moore; Cormac Izuchukwu, Kieran Treadwell; Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy (captain), David McCann.

Replacements: Brad Roberts, Callum Reid, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Matty Rea, David Shanahan, Ian Madigan, Ben Moxham.

Zebre: Gabriele di Guilio; Pierre Bruno, Tommaso Boni (captain), Enrico Lucchin, Jamie Elliott; Paolo Pescetto, Joshua Renton; Paolo Buonfiglio, Massimo Ceciliani, Matteo Nocera; Mick Kearney, Ian Nagle; Iacopo Bianchi, Lorenzo Masselli, Potu Junior Leavasa.

Replacements: Marco Manfredi, Daniele Rimpelli, Eduardo Bello, Leonard Krumov, Charles Alaimalo, Nicolò Casilio, Guglielmo Palazzani, Antonio Rizzi.

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU).

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