Ferris targets top-four league finish for Ulster
ULSTER head into the new season high on confidence with flanker Stephen Ferris declaring that the province's goals are "quarter-finals or bust" in the Heineken Cup and a top-four Magners League finish.
The recruitment of three South African heavyweights -- Ruan Pienaar, Pedrie Wannenburg and Johann Muller -- has raised expectations and tonight's opening league encounter with title-holding Ospreys at Ravenhill (7.05) will be a good test of whether Ulster's upbeat mood is justified or not.
"It has to be quarter-final stages or bust this season," said Ferris.
"With the new signings we must push forward and get into the knockout stages of Europe. But first things first. We must do a lot better than we did last season in the Magners League. Our aim is a top-four place."
With Muller and the in-from returnee Tim Barker forming the second-row combination and Rory Best leading the side from hooker, there is a potent look to the Ulster pack but the backline looks callow by comparison.
Irish-qualified Australian full-back Adam D'Arcy is flanked by wingers David McIlwaine and Tommy Seymour while Niall O'Connor and Paul Marshall are not a proven half-back combination.
Centres Ian Whitten and Darren Cave are both still only 23 but are an established midfield pairing.
The Ospreys may be missing the likes of James Hook, Mike Phillips and former Ulster star Tommy Bowe but they still have considerable attacking potential in Andrew Bishop, Sonny Parker, Nikki Walker and pace merchant Richard Fussell, their new signing from the Dragons.
With Ferris and Co leading the way, the Ulster forwards should be able to provide momentum but the Ospreys, through the likes of Ian Gough, Marty Holah and captain Jerry Collins are not exactly weak up front and they look to have a pronounced edge in the backs. It points towards a full-blooded home performance and an away victory.
ULSTER -- A D'Arcy; T Seymour, D Cave, I Whitten, D McIlwaine; N O'Connor, P Marshall; B Young, R Best (capt), D Fitzpatrick, T Barker, J Muller, S Ferris, W Faloon, P Wannenburg. Reps: N Brady, T Court, P McAllister, R Caldwell, R Diack, I Porter, P Wallace, J Shiels.
OSPREYS -- G Owen; N Walker, S Parker, A Bishop, R Fussell; D Biggar, J Nutbrown; R Bevington, M Davies, C Mitchell; I Gough, I Evans; J Collins (Capt), M Holah, J Thomas. Reps: H Bennett, P James, C Griffiths, J Goode, B Lewis, R Webb, L Byrne, S Williams.
REF -- P Allan (Scotland).
Ulster v Ospreys,
Live, BBC 2, 7.05