AS PRE-SEASON friendlies go, there is something a little special in store in Kingspan Stadium this afternoon (kick-off 17.30).
For along with the usual hit-out to get bodies re-accustomed to serious contact, a promise of new shape and patterns and a group of promising young talents ready to put their best foot forward, Chris Henry will be honoured in his testimonial year.
Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO
All summer long he has been putting in an organisational effort behind this fixture. Between bringing sponsors on board, getting updates on cupcakes, raffling off mascot roles and lining up other events to come during the season with the aim of raising funds for Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke, it’s been a busy time for Henry.
“It’s been talked about for quite a while. So I’m just looking forward to playing to be honest,” says the 33-year-old back row.
“Under strict orders from the girls in the charity, so I’ve my phone off and just focusing on rugby now. It’s really exciting, such good feedback from people.
“Fans and players just want to get stuck in and play now. After a long pre-season, it builds up and you want to get back out.”
The nature of Ulster’s pre-season training is all the more reason to look forward to game-time. Henry reports that the new conditioning regime has pushed players to the limit with a view to making this Ulster pack a tight mobile unit. Because they are still a fair few big bodies off being able to bullying teams around the park.
“We need to be focused on rugby and putting our skills under pressure. Our coaches Dwayne (Peel), Jared (Payne), Aaron (Dundon) and Dan Soper have done unbelievably well,” says the 2014 Six Nations winner.
“They’ve brought a lot of new things in and the way we want to play is different from last year.
“I think there’s going to be a lot more decision-making on the pitch, which will be good for us. We’re not going to be just as direct and one-dimensional. There’s going to be a bit more about us, hopefully. I think we’ve got the players to do that. We want to play a good brand of rugby.
“We’re fit and fast, I wouldn’t say we’re the fittest pack or the biggest team, so we need to play to our strengths.”
Sean Reidy with Henry at the end of last season. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland
First in to stress-test those strengths will be David Humphreys’ Gloucester – who will meet Munster in the second round of Champions Cup fixtures in October.
Ulster’s starting line-up includes four current academy or sub academy members, including talented out-half Michael Lowry. With 18 replacements listed, neither the former RBAI sensation nor any starter is likely to be asked to last all 80 minutes today, so there will be debuts in store for new signings Billy Burns (against his former club), Will Addison and Marty Moore from the bench. Henry Speight landed in Belfast this week, but won’t be unleashed on Ravenhill just yet.
Gloucester, after a week in which Danny Cipriani’s court appearance left them in the spotlight longer than they would have wished, have included ex-Munster man Gerbrandt Grobler in their pack and Owen Williams at out-half.
David Humphreys with head coach Johan Ackermann. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Former Ulster prop Paddy McAllister won’t play in Belfast due to injury, but there is strength aplenty on the visitors’ bench with Mariano Galarza, Ruan Ackermann, Ed Slater, Ben Morgan and Billy Twelvetrees all primed for game-time.