Ulster need to scale fresh heights in Leicester to secure the prize of home comfort
Mark Anscombe’s visitors aiming to book a quarter-final in front of their own fans at Ravenhill
Leicester outhalf Toby Flood will call the shots for the Tigers at Welford Road this evening. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Few things can be associated with glamour in the East Midlands. But rugby matches like these are one. The bulldogs, Leicester, as proudly English as, well, Martin Johnson revel in games where battle lines are clearly drawn. A one-off local dig in Welford Road for another shot of Heineken Cup glory comes down to 80 minutes.
A winner-take-all game, Ulster are two points clear at the top of Pool 5 and also lead the current European points standings with five wins from five. An away win would guarantee coach Mark Anscombe bragging rights and more importantly, a home run-in at a fully finished Ravenhill, where 18,000 fans would be expected for a European stadium christening.
Neither Leicester nor Ulster came close to showing their best side last week, Ulster against a thin Montpellier side in Belfast and Leicester against Treviso in Italy. That leaves some mystery as to how the two will match up in an intimidating ground but not the fortress it used to be a decade ago. Harlequins have won there while draws by Bath and Northampton suggest a thawing of the fear factor.
Anscome has largely stuck with the same side although Roger Wilson comes into the pack for Robbie Diack and Callum Black comes in for his first ever Heineken Cup start. Prop Declan Fitzpatrick did not recover from the concussion he suffered against Montpellier, while Craig Gilroy did after colliding with Andrew Trimble and breaking his nose. Gilroy lines out on the left wing with Trimble named on the right and Jared Payne continuing at fullback.
One of the interesting match-ups will be Toby Flood and Paddy Jackson. As the debate continues about who should deputise at outhalf for Johnny Sexton at national level with Ian Madigan and Jackson sparring all the time, the Ulster player seems to have nosed ahead. His game time is up on that of Madigan, who again gave way to a start for Jimmy Gopperth in Leinster.
But today’s duel will be another in the continuing test for the young Ulster player. Flood is also Leicester captain and with Ben Youngs at scrum half, theirs is an influential partnership.
Jackson again has Ruan Pienaar at his side. The Springbok won his second consecutive man of the match award last week and is an important influence for Jackson’s continued development. Last week Pienaar took the kicks and that’s unlikely to change.
But Leicester are known more for their forward dominated game and they have Jordan Crane back at number eight, while Graham Kitchener and Ed Slater form a second -row partnership after also missing the trip to Italy.
Anthony Allen, in the Leicester centre, will be making his first appearance at Welford Road since October after coming back from injury and joins the favoured Matt Smith, which led Anscombe to question during the week whether too many returning players to Leicester (eight changes, two positional) is always a good thing for team balance.
Ulster are the only team to have won all five Pool matches this season and are the only side to have qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in the last four seasons.
Rory Best, who plays in his 150th game for Ulster was insistent this week that they expect to keep the prize of Ravenhill as their target.
“We want the home quarter-final,” said Best. “At the start of this campaign we talked about not going places to get losing bonus points. We were going out to win every game. We did that away to Montpellier and the mindset is exactly the same this weekend. We want to win.
“Qualification is great but we know to do well in this competition having a home quarter-final puts the odds a bit more in your favour.”
Getting out of the pool guarantees little as Ulster have done that but departed at the quarter-final stage on the previous four occasions.