Determined Ulster to start campaign on a winning note


HEINEKEN CUP POOL FOUR Ulster v Castres:A PROVINCE expects and all that, and probably like never before. Buoyed by their run to last season’s final and the profound effects of the tragedy which befell Nevin Spence and his family, a strengthened squad and their searing early-season charge to the top of the Rabo PRO12 table, it’s doubtful whether Ulster have ever begun a Heineken Cup campaign with such a combination of determination and belief.

Not even their one enforced change to the line-up which kicked-off the 25-0 win at home to Connacht a week ago should affect them unduly, even if it will have surprised some Munster supporters to see the hitherto ever-present Nick Williams (rib injury) play with such vigour.

In his place, one of the Irish heroes from last summer’s Under-20 World Cup, Iain Henderson, follows up his first senior contract earlier this week with his full home debut in what will also be his Heineken Cup debut.

Stephen Ferris switches to number eight, while Ruan Pienaar, who returned from Rugby Championship duty with South Africa earlier in the week, is on the bench in place of Michael Heaney. After missing most of last season with an Achilles tendon injury, fullback Jared Payne will also make his European bow.

“I can’t wait,” admitted Henderson. “I’ve been watching games at Ravenhill since I was a kid and I’m really looking forward to pulling on the white jersey and experiencing the atmosphere as a player. My first aim for the season was to be involved in a few PRO12 games but with the few injuries that we have in the backrow, I’ve been given an opportunity and I have to try and grab it with both hands.”

Castres arrive in Belfast in seemingly characteristic fashion, performing solidly domestically thanks in the main to their home form (they have won all four games at Stade Pierre Antoine, while failing to win on the road) and somewhat swinging from the hip for their latest European excursion. This is their seventh Heineken Cup campaign in the last nine years, but in the previous six they have failed to win more than three pool matches once, and have won one of their last 19 away matches in the Cup.

Drawing them at home first up (and away in round six if out of contention) looks favourable for Ulster, all the more so as Castres also arrive in the knowledge, confirmed to the squad on Monday and the public at large on Tuesday, that their highly regarded coaching team, Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit, will be joining Racing Metro next summer, and les deux Laurents have retained only six of the starting team which began last week’s win.

Castres do have a stronger squad these days, and have chopped and changed a fair amount. Nevertheless this is a team comprised mostly of fringe players so far this season. No one epitomises this more than Pedrie Wannenburg, an ever-present in Ulster’s march to last season’s final, but having seemingly been bought as a replacement for the departed former skipper Chris Masoe, the big Springbok will be making only his second start of the campaign and his first at number eight. Of his five appearances on the bench, Wannenburg has only been brought on before the last five minutes once.

Similarly, along with another ever-present in lock-cum-number eight Joe Tekori, the Top 14’s leading points scorer, Rory Kockott, has been left on the bench for the first time this season, as Thierry Lacrompe makes his first start in place of the South African at scrumhalf. Admittedly, Kockott’s radar was awry last week when the metronomic Romain “Robocop” Teulet, with his idiosyncratic kicking style, steered them to victory last Friday over Clermont, who haven’t won in Stade Pierre Antoine for 36 years.

But the club’s all-time leading Heineken Cup points scorer is 34 now, is making only his second start of the season and in his only previous start Teulet looked decidedly dodgy under the high ball for Montpellier’s match-winning try a fortnight ago. He comes in at full-back for the exciting 22-year-old Brice Dulin, who made his French debut in Argentina last summer.

Of course, they are French, witness how Travers (a Heineken Cup-winning hooker with Brive in 1997) and Labit were in charge of Montauban when fielding a second string team and deemed supposed no-hopers on their debut at Thomond Park in 2008. The then holders needed a last-ditch penalty by some bloke called O’Gara to win 19-17. If given an early whiff, Castres could become very interested.

But given Ulster will be roared on by a near capacity crowd, and ought to be ferociously focused, with a bullish scrum, strong lineout, Ferris leading the charge and as potent an outside three as one can remember Ulster assembling, it really, really shouldn’t come to that.

ULSTER: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, I Henderson, C Henry, S Ferris. Replacements: R Herring, C Black, A Macklin, L Stevenson, M McComish, R Pienaar, L Marshall, C Gilroy.

CASTRES: R Teulet; M Garvey, S Bai, D Kirkpatrick, M Andreu; P Bernard, T Lacrampe; Y Forestier , M Bonello, M Coetzee, M Rolland (capt), R Capo Ortega, P Faasalele, Y Caballero, P Wannenburg. Replacements: M-A Rallier, G Marmoiton, M Lazar, I Tekori, A Claassen, R Kockott, P Bonnefond, T Sanchou.

Referee: Andrew Small (England).

Forecast: Ulster to win handsomely.

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