Ulster refuse to be weighed down by unbeaten run
Boasting European rugby’s only unbeaten record this season, rarely, indeed perhaps never, will Ulster have travelled abroad in the Heineken Cup with such a ransom over their collective heads as they do when facing a fired-up Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens this coming Friday. And never has that 12-game unbeaten run looked so threatened.
Even allowing for the absence of so many frontliners during the international window, the way Ulster have eked out wins away to Zebre, Treviso and the Scarlets was in contrast to their free-flowing rugby before November. This, in turn, has given rise to the suspicion that the unbeaten record is possibly weighing them down a little. But not according to coach Mark Anscombe.
“I’ve heard of a few boys who’ve said in interviews that they don’t want to be in that team (which loses the unbeaten record). But as a collective group we don’t talk about it. The fact is that we know that, for example this weekend we’ve got our third round of the Heineken Cup, and we need to qualify first to guarantee ourselves a quarter-final.
“So, forgetting our track record this year, it’s about a performance on Friday night that we need to concentrate on.”
Not unreasonably, Anscombe attributes the dip in performance levels over the past three games to the enforced changes in personnel. Mindful of having just a five-day turnaround since Sunday’s rain-drenched win in Llanelli, whereas Northampton beat Sale Sharks 48 hours beforehand, Anscombe also had to rest some of his more over-worked players against the Scarlets.
As expected, Anscombe has recalled Ruan Pienaar, Chris Henry, Paddy Wallace, Jared Payne and Nick Williams, while hooker Nigel Brady, development prop Ricky Lutton and outside back Michael Allen are added to provide further options in a 27-man squad. The only absentees are Stephen Ferris, Lewis Stevenson, Declan Fitzpatrick and Adam Macklin.
“It is tough but we’ve know about it for some time,” said Anscombe of the five-day turnaround, “so there’s no excuses with it. We’ve got on with it.”
This, in effect, will also be their first full-on, full-strength run-out since October, with which to re-establish previously fluid combinations.
“It’s not a panic. We have survived and we’re upbeat. We’ve had 40-odd guys play for us this season. Now we’re getting our guys back from international duty and they had good campaigns there, so they’re in good spirits about bringing that level back to Ulster.”
“We know we need to put on a good performance on Friday night. In the last month we haven’t been gelling perfectly but we’ve been working well. The guys are in good spirits, we’ve only four guys out through injury, so we’re in a good place.”
You cast a glance through the 27 names who have been pitched up for duty this week and Anscombe has some difficult decisions to make, not least selecting two wingers from Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy.
At number eight, Roger Wilson was clearly straining at the leash during his injury delayed return – during which time Nick Williams looked fitter and more effective than at any time in his Munster incarnation – judging by Wilson’s man of the match effort last Sunday.
“Yep,” Anscombe agreed matter-of-factly, “which is what you want, and what we talk about during the year. If you perform you force our hand. If you don’t, you also make it easy for us . . . To survive you’ve got to have good internal competition right through because it’s a long, big season and you won’t survive with 15-20 players.”
Ulster squad – forwards (16): Rob Herring, Rory Best, Nigel Brady, Ricky Lutton, Callum Black, Tom Court, John Afoa, Neil McComb, Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Mike McComish, Roger Wilson, Nick Williams. Backs (11): Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Paddy Wallace, Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Michael Allen, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy, Jared Payne.