Facing the Scarlets, in Llanelli, is one of the toughest challenges in European rugby. This is a challenge Ulster must embrace this Friday evening.
Ulster suffered a convincing defeat against the Scarlets a few weeks ago in the Pro14. Whether that has any bearing on this match remains to be seen; Ulster have named a much more experienced side and McFarland has given his side the license to attack the Scarlets from all over the pitch.
In Europe, Ulster won at home to Leicester but were dismantled in Paris to an impressive Racing 92 side who will have title aspirations.
On the other hand, Scarlets have lost two from two in Europe. This sets up the contest perfectly as a must win for both sides if they are realistic about progressing from their group.
Both sides welcome back some of their international stars back into the team. Ulster bring Henderson, Addison and Stockdale into their starting XV. Scarlets are bolstered by the return from injury for flanker James Davies and their captain Ken Owens.
This is a rugby purist’s battle – a battle for those who appreciate “dark arts” of rugby. These two are no strangers having been on tour with the Lions. They both relish the breakdown battle and it will be fascinating to see how they match up.
So often in key battles we look at the playmakers. However, in this match up I believe the role of the captains and opposing hookers will have greater bearing on the outcome on Friday night.
Best is riding the crest of a wave on the international stage and must bring this experience and form to the Ulster jersey. There are no doubts over his leadership skills but he must ensure his darts at the lineout are accurate to set a platform for Ulster to attack from.
Ken Owens will be excited at the prospect of taking on Best on home turf. Over recent years, Owens has become one of the best hookers in the world with his high work rate and abrasive style. I look forward to seeing what he can bring on his return from injury.
The Scarlets front row are all seasoned Welsh internationals and Ulster will have their work cut out at scrum time. Considering the Ulster scrum has struggled this season, I see this as a major advantage for Scarlet’s and one that will provide a platform to launch attacks from.
Frankly, this is a must win for the Scarlets. In European competition it is essential to pick up points at home and this is a game where they must perform.
With Mcfarland vowing to play expansive rugby, this makes for a very open game. Personally, I believe this plays into Scarlet hands as they also prefer an open game. Their backline is littered with quality and will create gaps in the Ulster defence.
4 or more tries would give Scarlets maximum points and keep their European hopes alive. I expect them to set the tone early, attacking Ulster through the pack and as the Ulstermen tire the tries will come for the Scarlets.