Ulster have huge incentive to crank up the momentum
It’s difficult to escape a feeling that Ulster’s defeat against the Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup was an aberration based on previous performances this season and that in losing to Munster in their most recent outing, a RaboDirect PRO12 league match in Thomond Park, player welfare management usurped serious ambition as regards the outcome.
Those presumptions can be scrutinised more forensically based on how the team acquits itself in Belfast tonight. The Scarlets may head the posse-chasing league leaders Ulster but they are some nine points adrift and in terms of personnel are missing close to a dozen players through injury and suspension.
The Welsh franchise have managed only one win in their last five games in all competitions, a 9-6 arm wrestle away to the Cardiff Blues. They lost home and away to the Exeter Chiefs in Europe and were well and truly spanked by the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium.
Ulster have beaten the visitors in four of their last five meetings including the game at Parc y Scarlets earlier this season and it’s over four years since the Welsh club left Ravenhill with the match points.
The Scarlets are without Rhys Priestland, Liam Williams, Ken Owens, Aaron Shingler and Joe Snyman to choose five front-line players from the treatment room and coach Simon Easterby has elected to start hooker Matthew Rees and centre Scott Williams on the bench. It looks a Herculean tough task for the visitors.
He conceded: “It hasn’t been a great spell for us. However we’re also mindful of what we’ve been up against. We’re in a very tough Heineken Cup group and that we’ve had a number of away games against very good opposition including two big Welsh derbies.
“We’ve had a few additional days over the new year without a game to be able to focus and reflect in some more depth – looking back on our European performances and our two Welsh derbies. That’s been important given the scale and significance of what’s ahead of us now.
“There’s a strong team ethic in our squad and with the quality and experience we have in our ranks, regardless of our injury list, there’s plenty of intent to put things right and it’s a huge opportunity to start that this weekend.”
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has made eight changes from the side that travelled to Munster. There could have been more given the absence from the match squad of Ireland hooker Rory Best, scrumhalf Paul Marshall and gifted New Zealand-born fullback, Jared Payne. John Afoa and Paddy Wallace are on the bench.
Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar return to the backline. It’ll be interesting to watch Cave and Luke Marshall tussle with Welsh international and potential Lion Jonathan Davies in the midfield match-up.
Tom Court replaces Callum Black while Rob Herring is retained at hooker, despite an impressive cameo from former Ireland under-20 captain Niall Annett when introduced against Munster. Dan Tuohy’s torn calf muscle has healed while Chris Henry is back to lead the team from openside flanker in a backrow that contains the in-form duo, Robbie Diack and Nick Williams.
Ulster are in a much better place personnel wise when compared to the visitors and they also boast a huge incentive to crank up the momentum tonight that will sustain them through the upcoming final two weekends of European pool fare.
Henry spoke during the week about the realisation amongst the players in the wake of the defeat to Northampton of the importance of diligent preparation, of training with the requisite intensity and of bringing that focus and commitment to matches. They honoured those requirements in beating Leinster, just a week after the Saints’ reverse.
The unbeaten millstone, which might have been increasing in weight with every passing match from the start of the season, is now in smithereens, and no longer an issue. Ulster need to manage the game on the pitch rather than try and deal with outside expectation.
The performance should be a statement of intent in quality and ambition that resonates beyond the 80 minutes tonight.