Ulster must put down Warriors’ uprising to make the knockout stages once again
HEINEKEN CUP Pool Four: Ulster v Glasgow WarriorsUlster’s defeat at home to Northampton before Christmas hasn’t hugely undermined their qualification prospects, and buoyed by a determination to put that result to rights they host Glasgow in front of another capacity Friday night crowd tonight knowing they can take a giant leap toward qualification for the knock-out stages for the third season running.
Indeed, if Northampton beat Castres tonight and Ulster equal the Saints’ haul of match points, they will be assured of topping the pool, with the carrot of a home quarter-final to be secured away to Castres tomorrow week.
Alternatively though, another home defeat would seriously imperil their prospects of advancing.
As expected, Dan Tuohy’s calf strain has ruled him out, with Iain Henderson returning to partner Lewis Stevenson in the secondrow. As Tuohy had been calling the line-outs in Johann Muller’s absence, this may have contributed to Robbie Diack being retained in an unchanged backrow, with Roger Wilson on the bench.
Rory Best and John Afoa return to the front-row, with Declan Fitzpatrick returning to the bench after recovering from a head injury which had sidelined him since November.
Offsetting, to some degree anyway, the loss of Tuohy and Muller is the news that Jared Payne has been passed fit to play after his troublesome groin ruled him out of last weekend’s win over the Scarlets.
As expected, Paddy Wallace returns in place of the injured Luke Marshall and is selected in midfield alongside Darren Cave.
Andrew Trimble will become only the fourth player to make 150 appearances for Ulster, behind Wallace (185), Justin Fitzpatrick (155) and Bryn Cunningham (150).
“I never thought when I was starting out that I would ever make 150 appearances. When I was younger I supported Ulster and always wanted to play for the province, so to reach 150 is really special.”
It will be recalled Muller’s lineout organisation skills, restart work and inspirational presence were integral to Ulster’s down-and-dirty win in Scotstoun in the second round.
The Warriors’ form in Europe has been vastly superior to Edinburgh’s and belies their results. They took a 14-0 lead in Franklin’s Gardens before being hauled in by Northampton, and twice finished within a score of Castres.
There’s a certain honesty of effort throughout most of the Celtic teams regardless of their standing in the group stages. That Glasgow came within a kick of beating Castres away in the last round, despite supposedly having far less to play for, was evidence of that.
Glasgow’s rout of a strong Treviso selection last Friday was their third win in a row after a Christmas double over Edinburgh, to take them to second in the table. They have an under-rated pack and some dangerous runners, notably DTH Van Der Merwe.
“They’re always a tough team to play against,” admits Mark Anscombe. “If you look at their games to date, teams don’t score a lot of tries against them. I know Munster scored a bonus point against them but I think that’s the only game they’ve conceded four tries. They’re hard to break down.
“They have a real formidable forward pack; they’ve got some big men; their set-piece is good; they’ve recruited well and during the season they’ve put together a pretty sharp looking backline.
“They’ve threats across the park; they play to their strengths; they don’t give you much and you’ve got to be patient and willing to work hard to get your points. You earn them,” Anscombe added.
Although Paddy Jackson had another off-night against Leinster, who seem to spook him a little, his defence, ability to take the ball to the line and execute Ulster’s game – which has a distinct clarity about it, in which forwards rarely impinge unnecessarily on a back’s terrain – unsurprisingly sees him retained, albeit with Ruan Pienaar now doing the goalkicking.
South Africa duty
As the South African missed the first chunk of the season and was on South Africa duty again in November, explains Anscombe, “it was always going to be a time frame when he came back to do the kicking. And it’s just worked itself out that in the last two weeks he’s been doing it, and he will continue doing it for the next period of time.”
There’s no good time for a defeat, but that Northampton set- back at home last time out in Europe may even have been a timely reality check amid decidedly premature talk of this being Ulster’s best-ever team.
Admittedly, they look a tad under-powered in the second-row but following on from an understrength defeat away to Munster, last week’s ruthless second-half display against the Scarlets suggests they may even be over their hiccup.
Although patience, from team and crowd alike, may indeed be a virtue tonight, ultimately they do have more to play for and that should shine through in another sustained 80-minute performance.
ULSTER: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, L Stevenson, I Henderson, R Diack, C Henry (capt), N Williams. Replacements: R Herring, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, N McComb, R Wilson, P Marshall, M Allen, C Cochrane.
GLASGOW WARRIORS: P Murchie; S Maitland, A Dunbar, P Horne, DTH Van Der Merwe; D Weir, H Pyrgos; R Grant, D Hall, M Low, T Ryder, Ar Kellock (capt), J Eddie, R Harley, J Strauss. Replacements: P MacArthur, G Reid, N Campbell, T Swinson, N Matawalu, S Wight, S Hogg.
Referee: P Gauzere (France).
Forecast: Ulster to win.
Saints alive: Only victory will keepNorthampton in the hunt
Northampton v Castres
Franklin’s Gardens 8.00pm
Northampton hope Ulster’s scalp can kick them on today against the French visitors.
Jim Mallinder’s side and the Top 14 outfit both have to win to keep in touch with pool leaders Ulster.
A win for Castres would put pressure on Pro12 leaders Ulster ahead of the final round.
In that event Ulster would have to travel to France for the final Pool game knowing they needed a victory in Castres to secure their own quarter-final place.
Northampton, who have won three of their four previous meetings with Castres, know if they win this game, they are still in the hunt for a place in the knockout stages.