ULSTER

The 2006 champions have flattered to deceive in recent years in the competition, falling short of early promise at the crucial junctures.

Well worth a place in the 2019/20 final, Dan McFarland's men didn't test Leinster in the Aviva, while last season’s meeting towards the end of the regular season saw Ulster blow an early lead in the Kingspan, where a win could have seen them move within a point of their rivals.

An early loss to Connacht in last season’s Rainbow Cup upset McFarland and meant they had little to play for in the final rounds.

Erasing those out-of-the-blue off-days will be key to their fortunes this season.


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Former Connacht and Leinster player Mick Kearney was their only new man in after the much-vaunted signing of Leone Nakarawa fell through until the capture of World Cup winner, South Africa's number 8 Duane Vermeulen was announced.

The experienced Springbok will complement a promising young crop that has emerged over the last year with Tom O'Toole, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume and Nick Timoney all winning debut Ireland caps this summer.

Vermeulen will join up with the squad after the autumn internationals.

They have also added former Blues, Highlanders, Leicester and All Blacks player Craig Newby to their backroom team as skills coach.

Glasgow are their round-one opponents, coming to Ravenhill on Friday, 24 September for a 7.35pm start.


Last season: Finished second in Conference A, seven points behind Leinster; won one of five Rainbow Cup games

Total titles: 1

Head coach: Dan McFarland (fourth season in charge)


Dan McFarland: "We did pretty well last year but we didn't do as well as we wanted to. This summer we’ve looked to push on physically, we are a very fit team. We feel that’s an area we can squeeze another few drops from.

"We are very happy with our style of play but within that there are areas that we will look to tweak. We want to hold a trophy at the end of the year.

"One team out of 16 wins, everything’s got to be humming for you, so there’s a little bit of luck involved."

Key player: A good performance by John Cooney (above) normally results in a good performance by Ulster. The Ireland scrum-half was the top scorer in last season's competition, led in assists and was named on the team of the year.

One to watch: 21-year-old utility back Aaron Sexton (above) is an All-Ireland Schools champion sprinter in both 100m and 200m. The Bangor Grammar School graduate was also part of Ireland's 7s squad last summer.


Players in: Lock Mick Kearney (Zebre) is the only new signing, while academy graduates Nathan Doak, Cormac Izuchukwu, David McCann, Ethan McIlroy, Callum Reid, Sexton and Tom Stewart join the senior squad as development players.

Players out: Kyle McCall, Adam McBurney, Alby Mathewson, Matt Fades, Louis Ludik, Hayden Hyde, Bruce Houston.


Champions Cup opponents: Clermont Auvergne, Northampton Saints