Ulster set to meet some familiar faces in France
As they seek a first win on French soil in the Heineken Cup, which could also earn them a home quarter-final, Ulster are likely to come up against some familiar faces when they take on Castres on Saturday.
The most obvious example is Pedrie Wannenburg, who is likely to start against his former club if the home side decide to shuffle their pack.
But Ruan Pienaar in particular will know all about Rory Kockott, the Castres’ scrum half who leads the Top 14 scoring charts ahead of Jonny Wilkinson.
Kockott was Pienaar’s understudy at Natal Sharks in his native South Africa, and the 26-year-old’s superb form this season has led to speculation about both a transfer and his international ambitions.
Last weekend’s defeat at Northampton ended Castres’ chances of qualification and considering the home side also have a Top 14 game away to Bayonne a week from today, Ulster could find things a bit easier than usual in the south of France.
Castres do not lose at the Stade Pierre-Antoine too often, however, and after a brilliant run earlier in the season, they’ll be keen to return to winning ways after losing against Toulouse, Grenoble and Northampton.
“We are a bit down because we thought we could have won that game and we didn’t pull through,” Wannenburg says of their 18-12 loss at Franklin’s Gardens. “But the guys are refocused and ready for this weekend.
“We lost our last home game so that motivates the players as well. We don’t like losing at home and the record speaks for itself here in Castres.”
The 32-year-old South African was, of course, a key part of the Ulster set-up last season, so he is well aware of the Irish province’s record in France.
“I know they beat Leinster for the first time since 2003 I think so they’re up there trying to change things. But we definitely don’t want to be the first team to lose against them here in France.
Under their belts
“The boys want to come out here, they want to perform and they want to get that win under their belts. So in a way I think it can be sort of in the back of your mind but not this year. I think winning and getting a home quarter-final would be more important for them than to win a game in France.”
Wannenburg has seen limited action since his summer move to Castres, but the backrow did start in the reverse fixture, when Pienaar’s late try sealed a bonus-point win for Ulster at Ravenhill.
“It was nice to be back at the ground and nice to hear the supporters, when I came off, were still behind me. It was nice for them to give me a cheer off but it was mixed feelings. Being on the other side for a change when the Ulster crowd was going, it felt different.
“The match didn’t go our way. We played stupid rugby and made so many mistakes. There were one or two easy tries so it could have been different.”
With hindsight, Wannenburg admits, Pienaar’s late score in Ulster’s 41-17 victory was a pivotal moment in the group. “Besides that one, we couldn’t get a bonus point against Glasgow at home as well so that makes it difficult for us. We knew we could have qualified.
“It could have come down to this game to qualify in top spot or not so the guys are a bit disappointed for giving a bonus point away against Ulster.”
Kockott was rested for the opening match as two of his former team-mates ended up on the winning side. The Castres scrumhalf played with both Johann Muller and Pienaar in South Africa, often featuring directly alongside the latter if Pienaar moved to 10.
Kockott kicked four penalties in vain against Northampton, and he says that a three-game losing streak has, to some extent, put the French team’s “backs against the wall”. “I think this week, for us, it’s a great way to finish off the Heineken Cup,” he said. “We set the standards a little bit higher than we used to.
“Some like to say that the French teams forget the Heineken Cup but it’s definitely not going to be like that because the coaches don’t have that attitude and neither do the players.
“It’s going to be a match for us to really enjoy and to have a go in. Hopefully we’ll get a result out of it.”