NEWPORT Gwent Dragons will be without New Zealand prop recruit Ben Castle for the first three or four weeks of the season.
Castle damaged a bicep in last Friday’s pre-season friendly at Coventry and is expected to miss at least the first three Magners League games against Ulster at Rodney Parade on Sunday followed by Leinster at the Royal Dublin Showground a week on Saturday and Glasgow at home on Friday, September 18, with the match against Munster at Cork the following week also in jeopardy.
Kiwi Castle was drafted in via Toulon in France and Australian Super 14 side Western Force as the replacement at tight head for Rhys Thomas, now with the Scarlets and set to make his debut for them against Leinster at Parc y Scarlets on Saturday.
Another Dragons casualty is number eight Lewis Evans who damaged an ankle playing for Newport against Carmarthen Quins in the Welsh Premiership last Saturday.
He is wearing a special shoe and will be missing for a couple of weeks, ruling him out of the Ulster and Leinster games.
Given that Hoani MacDonald is also sidelined for the first two or three weeks after a shoulder operation, the back row resources are suddenly stretched, though Dan Lydiate has impressed in both warm-up games.
Scrum half Danny Lee, like Castle a summer recruit from New Zealand, has been ruled out of the Ulster opener. He is keen to make it, but the Dragons don’t want to risk the scrum half after he injured a hamstring in training.
Seven players are not available for the Ulster match because of injury - Castle, Lee, Evans, MacDonald, Matthew Watkins (shoulder), Rhodri Davies (ankle) and Pat Leach (ankle).
But there are a number of encouraging signs going into the Ulster game, the coaches delighted with the form of Lydiate, lock Rob Sidoli and wing Aled Brew.
They were all outstanding at Coventry, Sidoli now pressing Adam Jones hard for a place alongside Luke Charteris in the starting line-up against Ulster, while Brew is carrying on where he left off for the Dragons two years ago before rejoining the Ospreys and moving on to the Blues.
One area of concern has been the scrum, Ali McKenzie, another new signing, having missed a fair bit of pre-season training with a knee injury and then needing an appendix operation.
With Castle out it could be the props against Ulster will be an unlikely pairing of Hugh Gustafson and Nigel Hall.
Ulster, who have a new coaching set-up, will be without British Lion Stephen Ferris and their captain Rory Best.
Ulster squad: T Nagusa, D Cave, N O’Connor, S Danielli, I Whitten, A Trimble, P Marshall, B Cunningham, I Boss, I Humphreys, P Wallace, N Spence, W Brady, T Court, B Botha, B Young, E O’Donoghue, M McCullough, A Kyriacou, D Tuohy, R Diack, R Caldwell, D Fitzpatrick, W Faloon, C Henry.