RABODIRECT PRO12: DRAGONS v ULSTER
- Venue: Rodney Parade
- Date: Friday, 6 September
- Kick-off: 19:15 BST
Coverage: Live on the BBC Sport website and on the red button
BBC Sport NI analyst Maurice Field believes Ulster face a challenging 2013-14 season as they continue to target success on the domestic and European fronts.
Expectations have risen among the Irish province's supporters thanks to Heineken Cup and Pro12 final appearances in successive years.
Meanwhile New Zealander Mark Anscombe enters his second campaign as coach with much the same squad at his disposal.
"Mark got off to a terrific start last year with that 15-match unbeaten run but will now realise the depth of the challenge ahead of him," said Field.
"Ulster's impressive performances mean that he will inevitably lose more and more players to the Ireland national squad and that is where strength in depth becomes all-important.
Ulster's early Pro12 fixtures
- 6 September - Dragons (a)
- 13 September - Glasgow (h)
- 21 September - Connacht (a)
- 27 September - Benetton Treviso (h)
- 4 October - Ospreys (a)
"There is an increasing expectation of success and, to some extent, Ulster have been punching above their weight in the last couple of seasons as they are not operating on anything like the same budget as other clubs.
"The challenge they now face is to maintain that level and keep as many players fit as possible."
The former Ulster centre believes the availability of fit-again players Paddy McAllister, Roger Wilson, Paddy Wallace and Chris Farrell, the return of David McIlwaine and the further progress anticipated for the likes of Callum Black are all crucial to Ulster's continued development.
"Mark has largely the same squad to work with. Niall O'Connor and Nigel Brady have gone, but a number of players are back from injury and many of the rising young stars are staking their claims for regular starting places.
"Stuart Olding is an example of a player who made massive strides last season - when everyone is fit the coaching team have a huge number of personnel to choose from, making the selection process very difficult, but that is a healthy thing.
"There are so many options in the back row, while on the wing Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe will be the front-runners when they are available. Then you have the likes of Michael Allen and Chris Cochrane.
"Andrew was very unfortunate not to be selected for Ireland given his performances last season, but he just knuckled down and got on with it.
Ruan Pienaar will miss the early part of the Pro12 campaign
"Johann Muller is not getting any younger so he will not be able to play every week while Stephen Ferris has been given an opportunity to go through rehabilitation and get himself back in action. He is receiving the best treatment he could possibly get and everyone would love to see him playing again.
"To retain the services of John Afoa is a major boost too and Mark and David Humphreys have managed his situation perfectly to get the best out of him.
"He is the consummate professional and is such a talent that Ulster can't afford to lose him. If he has to fly back and forward to New Zealand to be with his family I'm sure he will have a special programme to maintain his level of fitness.
Meanwhile Springbok half-back Ruan Pienaar will miss the first part of the season while on duty with South Africa, giving Paddy Jackson the opportunity to establish himself as the side's place kicker ahead of the start of the Heineken Cup campaign.
"Paddy was handed his big break with Ireland last year and I know he has been working hard during the summer. Having said that, Ruan is a world class player who will again play a key role.
"Jared Payne has played at centre during pre-season but I don't think that he is an out and out 13. He can play there and has adapted well when asked to play in that role but he reads the game tremendously well from 15 and is a very talented footballer.
"Tommy Bowe suffered more injury woe on the Lions tour to Australia, while for Rory Best the whole experience was a bit of a double-edged sword.
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“I think the players realise they were a bit naive, not streetwise enough, in their quarter-final defeat by Saracens in Europe”
"First, he was not in the squad, then he was called up and thrown in as captain, and he would certainly have been frustrated with elements of his own performance. He didn't do himself justice but he'll have learnt from the experience and benefitted from the training techniques. I expect some immense displays from him in an Ulster shirt this season."
The ex-Ireland player argues that Ulster have a gilt-edged opportunity to build up some momentum in the Pro12 to take into their opening Heineken Cup games against Leicester and Montpellier in October.
"The players can take confidence from their unbeaten start to the season last time round but those first two European games are key while the fourth team in the group, Benetton Treviso, will have the bulk of the Italian national team in their ranks.
"I think the players realise they were a bit naive, not streetwise enough, in their quarter-final defeat by Saracens in Europe and with losing out to Leinster in the Pro12 final, they will be determined not to be cast in the role of bridesmaids all the time.
"Success raises the profile of the team, generates revenue and in turn helps to attract more world class players to the squad."
On the Pro12 front, Field believes the Scottish sides will pose the biggest threat to the recent domination of the Irish provinces.
"Glasgow are an obvious threat while Alan Solomons will make Edinburgh competitive so I expect them to be there or thereabouts. Leinster will probably be the team to beat again though.
"The Ravenhill stadium redevelopment is an exciting project and it will be a tremendous stadium when it is all finished.
"The kickers will have to adjust slightly though as the wind will be coming straight at you off the Aquinas End and the flow of air through the stadium will be completely different."