By Tadhg Peavoy
Following three weeks of autumn international action, the PRO12 returns this week, with Ulster the first of the Irish provinces in action.
Mark Anscombes’s side face Edinburgh at Ravenhill tonight (kick-off 7.05), looking to get back on winning terms following their 17-9 defeat to Scarlets in their last outing on 2 November.
And the side taking to the field is a powerful one. Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble line up in a very strong back three, which is completed by Mike Allen at No 11.
The midfield is also equally impressive, with Darren Cave and Luke Marshall both released by the Ireland senior squad to in order to play for their province.
Marshall will no doubt have a point to prove following a mixed performance for Ireland last week.
His defensive lapse resulted in Quade Cooper’s try for Australia, and the memory of it will stick in Marshall’s craw, as he plays in white, not green this weekend.
His attacking forays against the Wallabies got the crowd on their feet, but he repeatedly became isolated in offence, failing to look for support, and make offloading passes.
He’ll want to improve his defensive lines and support play this week, and it will be crucial to Ulster that he does just that.
With Paddy Jackson away with the Ireland squad, James McKinney starts at 10, and the 22-year-old will relish the chance to prove his worth in the starting XV.
He comes up against another youngster in the form of 21-year-old Harry Leonard. It’s hard to predict the form of those two, and that unpredictability will have a large say on the patterns of the game.
McKinney has the added benefit of the experience of Paul Marshall inside him at 9. While 20-year-old Sam Hidalgo-Clyne lines out at scrum-half for Edinburgh.
The rest of the Edinburgh backline has Jack Cuthbert (No 11), Ben Atiga (No 12), Joaquin Dominguez (No 13), Dougie Fife (No 14) and Greig Tonks (No 15) complete the line.
Fife and Tonks are dangerous, but Ulster should have the measure of them, especially when playing at home.
The front row battle will be close. John Afoa starts for Ulster at tighthead, while WP Nel is at No 3 for Edinburgh. Ulster’s Callum Black and Edinburgh’s Wicus Blaauw will both, therefore, have a tough day at the office.
Ulster’s engine room is powered by Lewis Stephenson and Iain Henderson, who I fancy to dominate Ollie Atkins and Izak van der Westhuizen.
Sean Doyle starts at No 7 for Ulster with Robbie Diack at No 6 and Nick Williams at No 8. Tomas Leonardi, Roddy Grant and Cornell du Preez form the visitor’s back row, and a strong one it is too; expect the fringes and breakdown to be battlegrounds.
Ulster’s selection, combined with their desire to put their defeat to Scarlets behind them, all give indication that they should secure this game.
"Diack will do everything in his grasp to prevent defeat"
Add in the fact that Diack has been named Ulster captain for the first time, and you have another factor which edges Ulster in front mentally; he will do everything in his grasp to prevent defeat this evening.
If Ulster are in a dogfight come the last quarter, they can call on a bench that includes Tom Court, Dan Tuohy and Roger Wilson - a trio that can swing a game.
Edinburgh will come hungry, and searching for only a third victory in Ireland since December 2009, but in truth they don't appear to be strong enough in multiple departments to cause an upset.
Verdict: Ulster by 13.
Live television coverage of Cardiff v Munster from 18:15 on Saturday 23 November on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only).