Pienaar begins long goodbye as Piutau era gets underway
The anguish around Ruan Pienaar's impending exit will dominate the pre-match chatter at Kingspan Stadium tonight, but the Ulster faithful can take solace at the presence of Charles Piutau in their starting team for the first time.
For six seasons, the Springbok has ruled the roost in south Belfast, but he will now have to share the star mantle with the All Black flier, who is by far the most exciting addition to the Guinness Pro12 this summer.
Piutau was outstanding for Wasps last year, and the early signs in pre-season were that he isn't about to let up.
Pienaar's exit means there is additional pressure on Ulster to end their long wait for a trophy this year, given the lack of high-calibre replacements available to them at the end of the season.
Les Kiss is able to field a strong backline for the opener against a Dragons side lacking in star quality, with Craig Gilroy and Stuart Olding hoping to build on their summer tour exploits and Ireland U-20 players Jacob Stockdale and Brett Herron looking to prove their worth.
This season, however, the problem for the northern province lies in the pack, where the depth is nowhere near as strong as behind the scrum.
Academy tighthead Ross Kane makes his debut from the start amidst a front-row injury crisis, while Marcel Coetzee is some way from full fitness and Iain Henderson and Rory Best are kept on ice.
Even so, the home side should get off to winning ways.
ULSTER - C Piutau; C Gilroy, S Olding, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Herron, R Pienaar; C Black, R Herring (capt), R Kane, P Browne, F van der Merwe, C Ross, S Reidy, R Wilson. Reps: J Andrew, K McCall, A Warwick, A O'Connor, R Diack, P Marshall, S Windsor, R Lyttle.
DRAGONS - C Meyer; A Warren, S Beard, J Dixon, P Howard; N McLeod, S Pretorius; S Hobbs, TR Thomas (capt); C Mitchell; C Hill, R Landman; O Griffiths, N Cudd, E Jackson. Reps: R Buckley, T Davies, L Fairbrother, N Crosswell, L Evans, C Davies, A O'Brien, T Morgan.
Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)
Ulster v Dragons, BBC 1 NI, 7.35PM