Dan McFarland’s side will have two hit outs against former English and European champions Saracens before the new 16-team competition which will include four South Africa franchises.
Mark McCall’s Barnet-based side travel to Kingspan Stadium tomorrow (7pm) before the side’s lock horns again next Thursday in London.
Iain Henderson will get a prolonged rest after his exertions with the Lions in the summer, although the lock didn’t feature in any of the three tests, he did skipper the tourists in their victory over the Sharks.
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British Lions and Ireland prop Jack McGrath and international centre Luke Marshall remain long-term injuries, while the head coach will have none of his Ireland international contingent available for the first Saracens game.
“Henderson, he’s not going to be appearing in the first few games of the URC, we expect to see him back before the November internationals, it might be one game, it might be two, we’ll just have to wait and see,” explained McFarland. “Jack and Luke are both long-term injuries, Luke has had an operation and he’ll be out for quite some time, it’ll be next year.
“Jack is recovering from his hip surgery and things are coming along nicely, it’s very rare for rugby players to have this operation.
“At the moment, it’s going along nicely, it’ll be deep into the season before Jack is able to play but things are going well.”
Nathan Doak put in some eye-catching performances for the Ireland U20s during the summer’s Six Nations and could be rewarded with a start against the three-time European champions.
“He did very well in the under 20s, I never like to say ‘this is his opportunity’ because I don’t see it like that,” said McFarland. “There’s an opportunity every day to come in for training to get bigger and better, there’s always people working with them and supporting their progress.
“If he gets to play on Friday, he’ll have a good time and he can test out where he’s at and what he’s doing as well as testing out the couple of things that he needs to work on.
“He’s done pretty well, young player, lots to learn but if he gets the chance, I’m looking forward to watching him play.”
Winger Robert Baloucoune and loose forward Nick Timoney made Ireland try-scoring debuts in the 71-10 win against the USA in the summer, while centre James Hume and prop Tom O’Toole also collected their first caps.
“It was fantastic to see that many Ulster debutants playing for Ireland but playing so well, I know the Ireland coaches were impressed,” said McFarland. “I was never in doubt they’d go in there full throttle and do really well but to see them there on the pitch and making a mark that was brilliant.
“It gives the club a lift, that’s a goal for us - alongside consistently competing for championships - to bring those guys through and see them playing for Ireland.
“It’s a credit to them and the people who have supported them.”
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