Ulster wake up to reality after summer of discontent
AFTER the nightmare, the reality.
Ulster’s off-season has been shrouded in so much intrigue and conspiracy that the players are surely eager to finally get on the field and rid themselves of any lingering frustrations at the manifold off-field distractions.
However, veteran back-row Roger Wilson, who has seen a director of rugby and CEO depart this summer – as well as a slew of key players – believes tonight’s visit of English side Exeter Chiefs could be a wake-up call for his team.
A sprinkling of unknowns and stalwarts will start this evening’s contest and, with 19 replacements named, few will read too much into what are typically non-events.
But Wilson feels that it will be an important test for some of the youngsters experiencing their first match-day under interim director of rugby Les Kiss, as the latter begins his season with feet in both Ulster and Ireland camps.
“They will come here with a massive pack, which most Premiership sides have, and we are a little big inexperienced in that area with the Irish boys away,” says the 33-year-old.
“So it will be a huge ask for some of the younger boys to step up, but on the other hand a great opportunity for them.
“This is my 14th stint at pre-season training but for some of the new boys it will be a massive step-up.”
Among the new faces from the Academy are hooker John Andrew, who will start alongside his brother Ricky, the first brothers to feature in the same Ulster side since Simon and Rory Best.
Another Academy player, Alan O’Connor, starts in the second-row alongside Franco van der Merwe as Ulster begin life without their former captain Johann Muller.
In the back-row, two new signings also make their debuts for the province, with former Lansdowne player Charlie Butterworth starting at blindside and New Zealander Sean Reidy selected at openside.
Ex-Wallace High School pupil Jacob Stockdale starts on the right wing, with Rory Scholes picked on the left.
“I’ve only met Les previously during some Ireland training camps, but he is highly organised and detailed,” adds Wilson as Ulster attempt to shrug off a summer of upheaval.
“There certainly has been a big emphasis on those details during the pre-season build-up.
“However, it is all very well doing it on the training pitch – doing it under pressure during the season is another thing.”