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.
As last season’s Aviva Premiership success demonstrated, the Tigers have rebuilt their squad fairly seamlessly in the last couple of years.
The net effect is they probably have more strength in depth, and while they were forced onto the back foot for long stretches in last week’s East Midlands derby at home to a fired-up Northampton, the manner in which they hung in there before Toby Flood inspired a comeback from 10 points down with nine minutes to go which even had them looking the likelier winners, underlined their collective spirit.
You’d also have to think that, having been beaten by 33 and 34 points on their two previous treks here in this competition, forewarned is forearmed.
“The fact is they will be smarting from that because all I have heard is them talk about it,” said Anscombe, “and there are a good few in that squad who played in the defeat here two years ago.
“When you have quality players they have and they were hurting from that, they will be wanting to come here and right the wrongs from that game and show what they are capable off.”
Leicester will test Ulster strongly in the set-pieces, not least a lineout whose malfunctions last season cost Ulster dearly. Ulster won’t lack for hunger or motivation, and have the proven quality to match the Tigers’ claws at the breakdown.
You’d expect big games from their big players, Rory Best, Johann Muller and Nick Williams, with the latter’s ability to get Ulster on to the front foot critical to the outcome. Paddy Jackson is hitting a nice groove of form, and the outside three gives a real cutting edge. You also cannot discount how Ravenhill inspires the home side on nights like this.
However, in addition to all the other imponderables, there is perhaps the biggest imponderable of all, Romain Poite. Ulster may take some comfort from the knowledge that the Frenchman refereed these sides when they last met at Ravenhill. Then again, they may not.
ULSTER RUGBY: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Tommy Bowe; Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Tom Court, Rory Best, Declan Fitzpatrick, Johann Muller (capt), Dan Tuohy, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams. Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Ricky Lutton, Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack, Ruan Pienaar, Stuart Olding, Michael Allen
LEICESTER TIGERS: Niall Morris; Miles Benjamin, Vereniki Goneva, Dan Bowden, Adam Thompstone; Toby Flood (capt), Ben Youngs; Logovii Mulipola, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Louis Deacon, Geoff Parling, Ed Slater, Julian Salvi, Jordan Crane. Replacements: Neil Briggs, Boris Stankovich, Fraser Balmain, Graham Kitchener, Thomas Waldrom, David Mele, Owen Williams, Terrence Hepetema.
Referee: Romain Poite (France).
Previous meetings: (2003-04) Ulster 33 Leicester 0; Leicester 49 Ulster 7. (2011-12) Leicester 20 Ulster 9; Ulster 41 Leicester 7.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 4/9 Ulster, 20/1 Draw, 15/8 Leicester. Handicap odds (Leicester +5 pts) 10/11 Ulster, 20/1 Draw, 10/11 Leicester.
Forecast: Ulster to win.