Ulster look well set to continue recent dominance over Ospreys

Jack McGrath set for return after over a year out while Craig Gilroy could win 200th cap

URC: Ospreys v Ulster, Swansea.com Stadium, Saturday, 3pm – Live on Premier Sports

No doubt with one eye on their opening European assignment in Clermont next Saturday, to be followed by Northampton at home six nights later, Dan McFarland has made seven changes to Ulster’s starting XV from last week’s confidence-boosting win over Leinster at the RDS.

However, it will be quite a notable day for a couple of the Ulster replacements, Jack McGrath and Craig Gilroy. The 32-year-old McGrath, a replacement for the Lions in all three Tests of the drawn series against New Zealand just over four years ago, has been sidelined for over a year due to a hip injury that required surgery.

For his part, Gilroy is set to become the eighth Ulster player to make 200 appearances for the province.

Gilroy has to settle for a place on the bench for his landmark day as Robert Baloucoune has been recalled to the starting line-up after winning his second Irish cap against Argentina a fortnight ago.


Bradley Roberts also starts after his out of the blue call-up and debut for Wales against South Africa during the autumn series. The 25-year-old hooker from Durban qualifies for Wales through a paternal grandmother.

Eric O'Sullivan and Tom O'Toole, who also won his second cap against Argentina, are also restored to a new-look frontrow, as are lock Kieran Treadwell and flanker Sean Reidy, while Angus Curtis comes in for last week's man-of-the-match James Hume.

In response to their heavy defeat in the Sportsground, Ospreys head coach Toby Booth makes seven changes to the starting line-up, with Welsh internationals Alex Cuthbert, Tomas Francis, Sam Parry and Gareth Thomas among those returning.

Interestingly, Gareth Anscombe is among the replacements after Booth expressed the view that the 30-year-old needed more time before a recall to the international arena after his return from more than two years out with a knee injury. Judging by Anscombe's performances in one start and one appearance off the bench for Wales, Booth was possibly right.

“Ulster will be very confident after beating Leinster in Dublin,” said Booth. “This is an opportunity to do better and show more than we did last week against Connacht, and we certainly need to do that. It’s still a bench-marking opportunity to see how far we are on our journey.

“We have some players back and that will give us a real injection of energy and should help us to bounce back.”

Long gone are the days when Ulster struggled away from home. They also have an excellent record against Welsh opposition, winning their their last six matches against the regions, as well as six of their last seven against the Ospreys.

Although the Ospreys put the squeeze on Munster in their last outing in Swansea, they have won only two of their last nine home encounters against Irish provinces in all competitions.

It will be interesting to see if they bring the same restricted approach, and indeed the same is true of Ulster after they tailored their game plan to nullify Leinster with low-risk tactics revolving around ball retention, territory, competitiveness on the opposition’s breakdown and increasingly effective line speed in defence.

OSPREYS: Dan Evans; Alex Cuthbert, Michael Collins, Owen Watkin, Luke Morgan; Stephen Myler, Rhys Webb (capt); Gareth Thomas, Sam Parry, Tomas Francis; Rhys Davies, Bradley Davies; Will Griffiths, Jac Morgan, Morgan Morris.

Replacements: Elvis Taione, Nicky Smith, Tom Botha, Jack Regan, Ethan Roots, Reuben Morgan-Williams, Gareth Anscombe, Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler.

ULSTER: Mike Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, Angus Curtis, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan Mcllroy; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O'Sullivan, Bradley Roberts, Tom O'Toole; Kieran Treadwell, Alan O'Connor (capt); Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney, David McCann.

Replacements: Tom Stewart, Jack McGrath Martin Moore, Mick Kearney, Marcus Rae, Neil Doak, Stewart Moore, Craig Gilroy.

Referee: Sam Grove-White (SRU).

Forecast: Ulster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times