Ulster face tough start to PRO14 campaign and put on a show at Coleraine
Ulster were running through a tough training session at Coleraine Rugby Club on Tuesday afternoon when the Guinness PRO14 fixtures for the new season were confirmed.
The squad have been touring the Province ahead of the start of a new campaign, really allowing fans to get up close and personal and gaining a real insight into the demands of professional rugby.
Upwards on 600 people packed the clubhouse side of the Rugby Avenue venue at Coleraine yesterday and afterwards the players delighted young and old fans by posing for pictures and signing shirts, balls and basically anything that could be written on.
It was also an opportunity for several to see new players such as Billy Burns, Will Addison and Marty Moore as well as recent signing from Leinster, Irish international Jordi Murphy.
The fans at Coleraine and again at Letterkenny tomorrow were also fortunate to see Irish international stars, Rory Best (back from injury) and Iain Henderson, Rob Herring and Jacob Stockdale back in the fold for the first time this pre-season.
There were rumours earlier in the day that record breaking Irish winger Stockdale was not at the session, but he was not so instantly recognisable having gone for a close to ginger look hairstyle, which had many fooled.
In terms of the PRO14 fixtures being officially released, the players seemed more concerned about getting pre-season out of the way.
However there was a good buzz around the squad and while some may see home games against Scarlets and Edinburgh to start a new campaign as tough, some are looking forward to the challenge.
For new players like Billy Burns and Will Addison this will be new territory for them.
Both joined from English Premiership clubs and will look forward to make their debut in the PRO14.
Addison said: “It is exciting coming to a new club and a new competition.
“I have settled in well and while pre-season is always tough, it is exciting with the league games only a couple of weeks away now.”
The clubs are all drawn in the same conferences as last season, leaving Ulster in Conference B.
They finished fourth last season - outside the Championship play-off spots - and they had to secure a European Champions Cup place by winning a play-off against Ospreys at the end of last season.
Ulster open their campaign with a home game against former champions, Scarlets on Saturday, September 1 and will be at home the following Friday, September 7, when they meet Edinburgh, the side who pipped them to third place in their conference last season.
Ulster will then head on a mini-tour to South Africa.
They will face Southern Kings on Sunday, September 16 and then take on the Cheetahs on Friday, September 21.
Ulster will then face two Irish derbies ahead of going into their European Champions Cup campaign.
They head to Munster on September 29 and entertain Connacht on October 5.
There is still one overseas playing position to fill in the Ulster squad - an announcement is expected shortly, while the final piece of the jigsaw - getting their new head coach Dan McFarland in place - is still being discussed between the Irish and Scottish Rugby Unions.
The Scottish Union are refusing to release McFarland from his contract early - it is due to run until January 2019.