Two heavyweights meet on opening night
Bowe returns and Pienaar named on bench for Ulster against English champions
Ulster have been boosted by the return of Tommy Bowe (centre) for tonight’s opening Heineken Cup tie of the season against Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Even by the rich standards of the Heineken Cup, opening nights don’t come much more seismic than this. Two heavyweight former champions and virtual ever-presents, will have Ravenhill packed to the rafters.
As coach Mark Anscombe noted, compared to the marathon that is the Pro12 League, the Heineken Cup is about “small pockets and a sprint. If you do not get off the blocks it can be all over. You can afford to have hiccups in the Pro12 but you just cannot do that in the Heineken Cup. We got to make sure we are out of the blocks on Friday night and then others are trying to hunt us down.”
As the home side, Ulster can ill-afford a reprise of last season’s costly defeat in round four at home to Northampton, even if it was their only Cup defeat at Ravenhill in 15 outings there and didn’t cost them qualification, but it did send them to Twickenham.
As the home side, the pressure is also greater on them to win tonight.
Ulster were a little unlucky last season when hit by a raft of injuries mid-season when finishing fifth and coming in undercooked for that quarter-final against Saracens.
It may also be no harm that the sometimes excessive hype which accompanies them locally was tempered by their opening two defeats this season.
They’ve responded with three wins on the bounce, the grittiest of them last week’s recovery from 12-0 down away to the Ospreys.
Since then, so far, this has been a feel good week for Ulster, what with the perfectly timed confirmation that Ruan Pienaar will stay with the province for another three years rather than accept a more rewarding contract from Toulon.
Seemingly indestructible as well indefatigable, not to mention a class act and loyal, Pienaar even takes his place on the bench this evening after arriving from Springboks duty last Monday.
In another boost, Tommy Bowe will start on the left wing as one of three changes after recovering from the dead-leg that he sustained in the bonus point win over Treviso a fortnight ago.
Jared Payne switches to fullback in place of Craig Gilroy, who has failed to recover from the ankle injury that he sustained against Ospreys, with Darren Cave coming in at outside centre.
In the only change up front, Roger Wilson starts at blindside, with Robbie Diack moving to the bench. The one disappointment for Ulster is that John Afoa is still sidelined, for he is a big-game player tailor-made for an occasion such as this.
Leicester were ravaged by injuries when routed for a second time at this venue two years ago. They’re not a picture of health this time around either, what with injuries to Manu Tuilagi, Steve Mafi and Mathew Tait, amongst others.
Coach Richard Cockerill makes three changes, with Miles Benjamin called in on the wing for his debut in place of the injured Blaine Scully, Dan Bowden at centre and Geoff Parling resuming his place in the secondrow.