Edinburgh coach Alan Solomons returns to his old Belfast stomping ground tonight and admits the match against Ulster is his side’s toughest away assignment of the season so far.
The South African coached the Irish province between 2001 and 2004 and, while he has enjoyed two wins over his former club already in the past few months – in a pre-season clash and then 16-10 at BT Murrayfield early in the Guinness Pro12 – he accepts this evening will be a different kettle of fish.
Not only do Ulster, who currently sit just below Edinburgh in seventh place on points difference, have their World Cup big guns back, but the match also takes place in the atmospheric Kingspan Stadium, which is generally regarded as one of the toughest away venues in the competition.
Solomons has fond memories of his time at Ulster and knows the noise generated by the home crowd tonight is something which simply cannot be replicated in Scotland’s cavernous national stadium.
“They have a massive support in the province, where rugby plays a huge role,” said Solomons yesterday before the squad departed for Northern Ireland. “I went there in 2001 and now they have the fabulous Kingspan Stadium. But even back then, no matter the weather, Ravenhill was always packed out.
“This [BT Murrayfield] is a magnificent stadium but it is an international stadium. The facilities are superb but it’s a very big stadium. Scotland as a whole from a rugby perspective is moving forward. Glasgow have been terrific, we had an excellent World Cup, Edinburgh are improving. We need some positive energy. And as it continues to move in that direction, which I have no doubt it will, I think it will generate crowds. For the internationals the crowds have been fantastic.
“Scotstoun, which is a smaller stadium, tends to be packed. [Moving to a smaller stadium] is not something for me as a coach, it’s more for Jonny Petrie as the [Edinburgh] MD and Mark Dodson as the [SRU] CEO. They’ll have that matter in hand.”
Solomons has made four changes to the side who secured a first bonus-point win of the season against Dragons at BT Murrayfield last Friday. Scotland scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne withdrew yesterday morning with a hand injury and is replaced by Sean Kennedy.
Greig Tonks, who tweaked his hamstring in the first half last week, is replaced at full-back by Jack Cuthbert, with Dougie Fife returning from injury to pull on the No 14 jersey in place of Tom Brown, who is out with a shoulder knock.
Lock Anton Bresler returns to partner Alex Toolis, with Fraser McKenzie sidelined with a neck injury. Mike Coman again leads the team at blindside with John Hardie at openside and No 8 Cornell Du Preez.
“Connacht [where Edinburgh lost 14-9 at the end of October] is tough but, yes, I’d say this is the toughest away game so far this season,” added Solomons. “Ulster have good players across the board as you would expect from a club that has been at the top in Europe and the Pro12 for many years now. I would say [scrum-half] Ruan Pienaar is a key player for them and [stand-off] Paddy Jackson. Andrew Trimble has a tremendous amount of experience and so too does even a young guy like Darren Cave.
“In the forwards, Roger Wilson is a great player who I coached as a youngster and Franco van der Merwe who I know from South Africa and runs their lineouts. They are a strong side.”
Ulster, who have not lost at home to Edinburgh since 2009, have given centre Luke Marshall an opportunity in midfield beside Darren Cave, with Rory Scholes starting in a back three that also features Andrew Trimble and Peter Nelson. Rory Best is rested for the game and replaced at both hooker and captain by Rob Herring.