GLASGOW coach Danny Wilson has handed competitive debuts to four players in his starting line-up for tonight’s United Rugby Championship opener against Ulster in Belfast - a fixture that he believes is one of the toughest his team could have been given to kick off the new competition.

Centre Sione Tuipulotu, No 8 Jack Dempsey, former Edinburgh tighthead prop Simon Berghan and on-loan loosehead Brad Thyer are the newcomers who will start the match at the Kingspan. Murray McCallum, another ex-Edinburgh prop who has joined the Warriors squad on a short-term deal, will make it five new boys if he comes off the bench.

After a narrow defeat at home to Newcastle in their first pre-season friendly, Glasgow played superbly at times a week later at Worcester to win the battle of the Warriors. The manner of that 27-22 victory suggested that, after an at best indifferent 2020-21 campaign, Wilson’s team are now heading firmly in the right direction. 

However, as the coach pointed out yesterday after announcing his team for the trip to Northern Ireland, several of his key summer signings have still to join up with the team as they are still honouring other commitments. And, with Zander Fagerson and Ali Price only just returned to pre-season training after their involvement in the Lions tour, the squad is still some way below full strength. 

HeraldScotland:

They are not the only ones in that position - Ulster themselves, for example, cannot yet call on the services of South African international Duane Vermeulen, the most high-profile summer signing of any URC team. But, having taken the team through a tricky transitional spell last season, his first at the helm, Wilson is surely correct to say that it could be a month or two before we see this Warriors side hit peak form.  

“Against Ulster, against the Sharks, and then the next few games is a five-game block which that pre-season period was designed to prepare us for,” Wilson explained. “At the end of that five-game block you get another seven or eight players available to us, so we get this group through that block and get the next group prepared for that period. 

“I’m really excited by this group. They played well and trained well and are ready for this game - but ultimately going to Ulster is one of the toughest games of the season, and it’s at a packed Kingspan. It’s a big challenge but one we’re excited for, so we’ll see how we rock up on Friday night and the important thing is how we build from there.

“We have four debutants and one on the bench, and it will take these guys time to settle in. We have youngsters involved as well. 

“What you’re going to see this season is the next block of building for us, which will be some really exciting new signings mixed in with the boys we blooded last year along with our senior pros. Our squad is going to move forward very quickly, from last year into this year and into the future.”

Some of those youngsters such as Ross Thompson and Cole Forbes showed a composure beyond their years last season, but in the main that was in front of empty stands, so the fact that crowds are now back at most venues will be a novel experience for them. “I think they’ll relish it and enjoy it and see it as a challenge, but also it will be a new experience,” Wilson added.

HeraldScotland:

“Likewise, hopefully they’ll get the lift in their home games, playing in front of a packed Scotstoun. It’s the next step for those young boys, definitely, amongst other things like consistency and now challenges in their positions.”

While Forbes starts at full-back, Thompson is on the bench, Duncan Weir having been preferred at stand-off for what will be his first league outing for his hometown team since 2016. “We’re lucky to have two 10s who played well in the pre-season period - I just felt over those two games Duncan edged it,” Wilson explained. “There’s an element of tactical thinking as well.”

Glasgow Warriors (v Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium, tonight 7.35pm): 

C Forbes; K Steyn, S Tuipulotu, S Johnson, R McLean; D Weir, G Horne; B Thyer, J Matthews, S Berghan, S Cummings, R Gray, R Wilson (captain), R Darge, J Dempsey. Substitutes: F Brown, J Bhatti, M McCallum, L Bean, R Harley, J Dobie, R Thompson, O Smith.

Ulster: E McIlroy; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, B Roberts, M Moore, A O’Connor, S Carter (captain), G Jones, S Reidy, N Timoney. Substitutes: R Herring, E O’Sullivan, T O’Toole, M Kearney, M Rea, N Doak, M Lowry, W Addison.