THIS IS GOING TO BE TOUGH
Ulster V Edinburgh Rugby 24 March 2004
It's fair to say that the last couple of months have been a bit frustrating. For Gunners fans, the side has been completely dismantled by international calls, injuries, and even the situation in Iraq. With 24 Gunners unavailable for much of the time, naturally, wins have been hard to come by as a result. For those who follow Scotland, well, say no more.
In both cases, young players have been thrown in at the deep end by very able coaching teams who have to contend with limited resources. In both cases, the pain we are enduring now will prove to have been worthwhile, although timescales will differ. Scotland may take 18 months to two years to be truly competitive at international level once more. In Edinburgh's case, there is a massive European quarter-final game in Toulouse still to look forward to this season, and - assuming the team qualifies for the Heineken again - the prospect of more European glory and a chance of Celtic success next term.
This is a team that is on the up, and - clichéd though it may sound - the experience that the young Gunners who have stepped in during the international breaks have gained really will serve them and the club well in future. The European game in Newport last season was the start of the rise to international recognition of Tom Philip, Simon Webster and Ally Hogg, with Simon Cross and Ally Kellock also subsequently training with the national squad. It would be little surprise if their stellar progress is repeated next season by the likes of Ali Strokosch, Andrew Kelly, Matt Dey, or Ander Monro.
In the meantime, the final game for the youngsters before the big boys return home could not be tougher. Ulster delivered a good old-fashioned humping when they visited Meadowbank during the World Cup, and they will be just as formidable opponents at home at Ravenhill.
But Edinburgh will have something to prove after the home loss to the Ospreys. They let a game that was in the bag slip from their grasp and will be keen to make amends. There was so much that was good about the performance, with the team defending solidly, playing with verve in attack, and competing well up front. A number of individuals shone, and there was, in Hugo's amazing end-to-end try, possibly the best Gunners score of the season. There is no reason why they cannot win, but it will take a healthy dose of luck.
Edinburgh see six changes to the team that started against the Ospreys, with Grame Burns back from injury to skipper the side. There are four new faces in the pack, with Craig Harrison and Angus Martyn coming into the back row, Guy Perrett joining Ally Kellock in the boiler room, and Joel Brannigan coming in to the front row. Matt Dey moves on to the wing, with the welcome sight of Ali Dickson making his first start since his injury during the Inter-City game over the festive period.
Though Ravers will doubtless see a sizeable travelling support of Gunners on their way to Lansdowne Road for the international on Saturday, the atmosphere will be intimidating. The opposition will be pretty useful too. Despite the welcome - for Edinburgh - absence of Robbie Kempson, Alan Solomons has picked a strong side, with Frost in for injured Kiwi second row Mustchin, Tyrone Howe back from international duty on the wing, and, in Humphreys' absence at Lansdowne Road, the half back combination will be Larkin and Campbell.
For ULSTER, David Humphreys may be away on international duty, but Adam Larkin is a more than useful replacement. The home front row will go a long way to deciding their fortunes. EDINBURGH must compete up front if they are to stand a chance, so the onus is on the increasingly impressive Dougie Hall and underrated Guy Perrett to galvanise the youngsters in the tight five. If they can do that, then what is a strong Gunners back division could do some damage.
This would be a tough enough game with both sides at full-strength. With Ulster losing relatively few players to international calls, and Edinburgh plenty, it will be tougher still. It's difficult to see an Edinburgh victory - a good performance will be enough.
Edinburgh Rugby: Hugo; Joiner, Di Rollo, Dickson, Dey; Monro, Burns (captain); Mathieson, Hall, Brannigan, Perrett, Kellock, Dall, Martyn, Harrison. Subs: Kelly, Driver, Fisher, Lawson, Warnock, Sharman
Ulster: Cunningham; Topping, Stewart, Steinmetz Howe; Larkin, Campbell; S Best, Sexton, Moore, Frost, McCullough, Ward (Captain), McMillan, Wilson Replacements: Shields, McCormack, Longwell, N Best, Doak Wallace, Young
Eurorugby.com rankings: Edinburgh 24 (no change) Ulster 9(no change)
Kick off: Friday 26 March, 7.30 pm, Ravenhill