HAVING raised levels of confidence and expectation last season, Glasgow head to Belfast’s newly-developed Ravenhill tonight with fresh belief swirling around their ranks.
It stems in part from the confidence with which they finished last season, but is driven too by the strength of the side they have been able to name for tonight’s bid for a second successive league win against Ulster, who are reeling from an opening-day defeat in Newport.
Head coach Gregor Townsend surprised in his first few months in charge last season with a series of radical changes to his starting line-up, but it served him well in the end. He has made nine changes this week to the team that started the 22-15 win over Cardiff but is right to believe he has not weakened it.
The back division welcomes British and Irish Lions full-back Stuart Hogg – who also provides stand-off cover – and top-scoring wing DTH van der Merwe, fresh from his successful World Cup qualifying exploits with Canada. Sean Lamont forms an intriguing midfield pairing with Mark Bennett and Ruaridh Jackson joins new skipper Henry Pyrgos at half-back.
In the pack Ryan Grant returns from Lions duty and Scotland under-20 captain Jonny Gray replaces Al Kellock, who is out at least until next month with an ankle injury. The back row has a strong appearance with Josh Strauss at No 8, Rob Harley on the blindside and openside flanker Tyrone Holmes making his first competitive start.
It is a sign of the new strength in depth that Townsend has to play with that Glasgow can pick a side that looks stronger than the hosts on paper, despite missing skipper Kellock, Ryan Wilson, Tom Ryder and Mike Cusack and backs Niko Matawalu, Duncan Weir, Peter Horne and Alex Dunbar to injury.
The bench also features internationalists Chris Cusiter, Dougie Hall, Moray Low, Richie Vernon and Puma newcomer Gabriel Ascarate, as well as recent captain Chris Fusaro.
Ulster have enough quality to cause Glasgow problems, notably centres Darren Cave and Luke Marshall, veteran Aussie full-back Jared Payne, fly-half Paddy Wallace and forwards Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy and Nick Williams. But they miss an experienced spine tonight – Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble, Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa, Rory Best, Mike McComish, Robbie Diack and Stephen Ferris – with more caps on the bench, so are vulnerable.
Of his new selection, Townsend said: “We put out the team that we believe puts us in the best position to win and obviously we have players available this week who were not available last week, [such as] Stuart Hogg, Ryan Grant, DTH van der Merwe and Josh Strauss. We picked up a couple of injuries last week as well.
“It is great to bring them [Lions players] back. They are itching to go. They have had five or six weeks of pre-season training and have looked really good this week. The positive effect it must have had on them as people to be on that tour, never mind the improvement it must have had on them as players, we should see transferred into what they do this season.
“If you go on a trip like that, the pinnacle of rugby for a northern-hemisphere player, and meet new challenges then it is going to change you as a person. All three [Sean Maitland has yet to return to action] seem very confident and excited about playing.”
ULSTER: 15 Jared Payne; 14 David McIlwaine; 13 Darren Cave; 12 Luke Marshall; 11 Michael Allen; 10 Paddy Jackson; 9 Ian Porter; 1 Callum Black; 2 Rob Herring; 3 Declan Fitzpatrick; 4 Johann Muller (capt); 5 Dan Tuohy; 6 Roger Wilson; 7 Sean Doyle; 8 Nick Williams. Subs: 16 Niall Annett; 17 Tom Court; 18 Ricky Lutton; 19 Iain Henderson; 20 Chris Henry; 21 Paul Marshall; 22 James McKinney; 23 Ricky Andrew.