IN A turbulent season for Ireland's provinces, Ulster have been the shining light of consistency.
They are the only team from this island whose destiny remains firmly in their own hands with two rounds to go in the Heineken Cup pool stages, with the assurance that wins over Glasgow and Castres should secure them a home quarter-final – which their rivals can only envy.
Things could be even rosier at Ravenhill if they had not let their guard down when Northampton visited Belfast before Christmas. Had they followed up their bonus-point away win with another victory, then the pool would have been secured and they could afford to breathe easily this week.
Unfortunately, an underpowered and careless display cost them that luxury, with injuries to Tommy Bowe and Dan Tuohy adding to Mark Anscombe's woes.
A Christmas win over Leinster had a restorative effect and, despite losing with an under-strength side at Munster, the northerners come into the business end of the season with momentum behind them and just two defeats to their name, even if their squad is beginning to look a little shallow.
Tonight, Glasgow come to town with nothing to play for and, equally, nothing to lose. The Scots' interest in this competition came to an end in October, but a recent resurgence has seen them rise to second in the Pro12, behind tonight's opponents.
Their coach Gregor Townsend is desperate to retain their winning form after back-to-back wins against Edinburgh over Christmas as well as a win at home to Treviso.
Europe may be dead and gone for tonight's visitors, but they want to prove that their recent peak in form is sustainable.
" Ulster are clearly a very fine side. They've only been beaten once at Ravenhill in the last 13 Heineken Cup games but this is the kind of challenge we look forward to. It means we're testing ourselves against the best sides around," Townsend said.
"We performed very well in the Heineken Cup last time out against Castres and we're coming off a good run of wins in the league, so there's a confidence about the squad at the moment that their hard work is paying off.
"We know our results in the Heineken Cup haven't been good enough, so we want to show that we're capable of performing at an elite level, regardless of the opponent or the situation."
The Scottish side are a man down as Gordon Reid is their only fit back-up prop and they will rely on him to cover both sides of the scrum. Given the pressure that Ulster's front-row of Tom Court, Rory Best and John Afoa are capable of applying, it is certain that Anscombe will be targeting that area from the off.
Tuohy's injury means that youngster Iain Henderson starts in the second- row, with Robbie Diack at blindside.
The rising star had a tough time against
Northampton's locks in the last European outing and could do with a big game to show his capabilities in the engine room.
Jared Payne has made the cut, after struggling with injuries, as part of a potent backline who can damage their opponents off good ball. Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson continue at half-back.
Declan Fitzpatrick adds ballast to the bench, with Chris Cochrane making the step up from British & Irish Cup and All-Ireland League rugby as cover for the back three.
After such an impressive start to his reign as Ulster coach, Anscombe wants no let-up.
"The challenge is to keep growing and we all know that nothing is won at Christmas – at the end of the day the success of your season is judged by trophies or by how well you have done," the New Zealander said.
"We are happy where we are at – better than expected – but we are also realistic that there is still a long way to go and that there is a lot of rugby to be played."
A bonus point would effectively secure the Ulstermen's place in the quarter-finals. Northampton host Castres at the same time however, and if Castres can win, then the Irish province may need a first competitive victory on French soil to qualify. It shouldn't come to that as a bonus point win is well within Ulster's capabilities.
Having botched the Northampton job, it is unlikely they will be caught cold again and their ambitions should be to put to bed tonight, thus allowing them to relax.
ULSTER – J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; L Stevenson, I Henderson; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams. Reps: R Herring, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, N McComb, R Wilson, P Marshall, M Allen, C Cochrane.
GLASGOW WARRIORS – P Murchie; S Maitland, A Dunbar, P Horne, DTH van der Merwe; D Weir, H Pyrgos; R Grant, D Hall, M Low; T Ryder, A Kellock (capt); J Eddie, R Harley, J Strauss. Reps: P MacArthur, G Reid, N Campbell, T Swinson, N Matawalu, S Wight, S Hogg.
Ref – P Gauzere (FFR)
Ulster v Glasgow,
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