Ulster may have found their mojo just in time
This is the first time Ulster have started with 13 internationals since beating Northamtpon in Franklin’s Gardens
Andrew Trimble at Ulster training earlier this week. Photograph: Russell Pritchard/Inpho
Of the trio of teams heading to the English capital for a potentially momentous London trilogy, an Ulster side buoyed by the return of Tommy Bowe can rightly lay claims to being the best of the Irish just now. The short straw for them is that they are assuredly running into the pick of the English.
Saracens are England in microcosm; only more dominant in their own sphere. Unremittingly physical and direct, with strong set-pieces and few frills or mistakes to their game, they supposedly have a mathematical limit to the number of passes in their own half.
Their sizeable, South Africa-backed squad is rotated regularly by Mark McCall, and so they invariably pack a heavyweight bench.
With the remorseless Brad Barritt leading their defence, they are obdurately tough to break down and even when a team manages to do so as Racing did in the group stages, Saracens hung in through Owen Farrell’s boot to eventually emerge on top.
Admittedly, the move to the all-weather surface of the Allianz Arena has encouraged them to play more expansively and they are also in good form; a run of five wins out of six propelling them to the top of the Premiership. Nor will the move to Twickenham greatly unhinge them or their English test core. Saracens are unbeaten at ‘home’ for a year now, although as befits their grandiose global ambitions, home has been five different grounds this season, including Twickenham.
However, it shouldn’t discommode Ulster unduly either. Saracens are talking of a 40,000-plus attendance, but as many as half of that figure could be supporting Ulster, who sold 7,500 of their allocation, but the vast majority have been sold on line, and one imagines the ex-pats will swell their numbers considerably.
It just adds to the feeling that this could yet be a special day for the Ulstermen. True, Twickenham is the scene of their sound beating by Leinster in last season’s final. And in what has been a remarkable rollercoaster for Paddy Jackson over the last 12 months, once again he will have to exorcise a ghost or two today given his kicking aberrations in that final.
The return of Johann Muller, Chris Henry, Ruan Pienaar and Jarred Payne from injury, along with Rory Best and Craig Gilroy, couldn’t have been more timely, and with Pienaar re-assuming the goal-kicking duties and encouraging Jackson to play closer to the gain line, the latter pulled the strings much better. Their line speed was also good in defence.
Now, in addition to the return of Luke Marshall and the world-class John Afoa, with Iain Henderson restored too, even Bowe has made a remarkable recovery from the damaged knee ligaments to take a place on a strong-looking bench and he should get 30 minutes.
This is the first time Ulster have started with 13 internationals since beating Northamtpon in Franklin’s Gardens; their best performance of the season.
They’ll need to play as well again, and both the line-out and presence of Romain Poite are concerns, but after their mid-season, injury induced blip, Ulster may have rediscovered their mojo just in the nick of time.