DRAGONS v ULSTER (Tonight, KO 7.05)
NEWPORT Gwent Dragons have the chance to make a huge statement when they host unbeaten RaboDirect Pro12 pacesetters Ulster tonight.
The Dragons have a good record against the Irish province, who have won just one of their last six at Rodney Parade.
But the odds are long on a home win given Ulster’s blistering start to the season.
They have won all five Pro12 games and both Heineken Cup clashes while their matchday squad includes nine players that will be on Ireland duty this autumn.
Not only that but they field South Africa ace Ruan Pienaar at fly-half, strong-running New Zealander Nick Williams at number eight and the imposing figure of former All Blacks prop John Afoa looms on the bench.
It’s a daunting test facing the Dragons, who lost seven out of eight against Irish opposition last season, but director of rugby Robert Beale believes it presents a potential launch pad.
“Taking the scalp of Ulster would heal a few wounds and get us back on track in the Pro12,” he said.
“We have got to start winning some of these big games and hopefully tonight will be the start of a good run for us.
“We know that Ulster are a strong outfit but I am confident that we can beat any team at Rodney Parade.
“They have got a lot of talent and have improved their squad over the years but our record against them is very good.
“It will be a tough encounter but if we take the desire and determination that we showed against Bayonne, even though we didn’t get the win, then it should be an interesting game.”
The Dragons will be led by hooker Steve Jones after Lewis Evans failed a fitness test on his groin.
Jevon Groves replaces the captain at openside flanker while the only other change to the XV that took to the field against Bayonne sees lock Adam Jones replace Ian Nimmo.
Ulster move Pienaar from scrum-half to fly-half with Paul Marshall replacing him at nine.
Former Ospreys ace Tommy Bowe plays full-back while Afoa is given a break with Declan Fitzpatrick starting at tighthead and Lions flanker Stephen Ferris, who has a back injury, is not risked.
Ulster head over with a steely determination to keep their unbeaten run going before they lose their players to Ireland.
“We’ve got two important games before the break (for the autumn internationals),” said head coach Mark Anscombe.
“We don’t want to slip up at the moment so we need to keep our feet on the ground.”
Flanker Chris Henry, who will skipper the visitors in the absence of lock Johann Muller, is braced for a tough encounter.
“The Dragons will be a difficult proposition,” he said. “But the fact that we have not been beaten yet has given us a lot of confidence.
“We know that can change very, very quickly and we have to get our heads right.”