Ulster wary of backlash from hurt Saints
There is a popular theory in professional sport that advocates focusing on the process of winning rather than being distracted by the outcome. It’s a mental game and one at which Ulster will strive to prove adept in Belfast this evening if they are to deliver a 14th consecutive victory this season and a fourth pool success in the Heineken Cup.
It would be foolish to disregard what the province achieved in an outstanding 25-6 bonus point victory at Franklin’s Gardens in analysing this rematch but Ulster coach Mark Anscombe was right in voicing his concern during the week of a backlash.
While the points at stake are hardly irrelevant the Northampton players’ character has been questioned in the wake of their anaemic display in front of their own supporters and they’ll want to provide a suitable response.
England and Saints fullback Ben Foden articulated their intent. “The performance let us down, as individuals and as a team. There is no finger pointing, we sat down and took the blame as a team, and we know we have to make things better.
“It is a big ask to go to Ravenhill and beat an undefeated side but for us it is about pride, of getting back on track. A lot of people will write us off – which is probably a good thing – but we are probably at our most dangerous when teams take us for granted and we will be looking to put in a big performance at Ravenhill.”
The key for Foden and his cohorts is to provide substance to intent or else it’s nothing more than whistling past the graveyard. Northampton coach Jim Mallinder has made six changes to the team, starting with the introduction of the more physical and direct Tom May for Dominic Waldouck in the centre.
Lee Dickson and Stephen Myler take over as the starting halfbacks – in the case of the latter it’s probably down to Ryan Lamb’s place-kicking travails at Franklin’s Gardens – one time Trinity College student Paul Doran Jones comes in at tighthead prop for Brian Mujati and Mikey Haywood is at hooker for the suspended Dylan Hartley.
England’s Courtney Lawes, just back from injury, has been dropped to the bench. Lawes’ demotion means a reshuffle in the pack, with Callum Clark moving to the secondrow and Phil Dowson now at flanker.
This will give the visitors plenty of mobility in the back five and potentially more of a foothold at the breakdown. Leaning gently on a statistical lamppost, Ulster have won more turnovers (37) of any team in this season’s tournament while the Saints (58) have conceded most.
The unfortunate arm injury suffered by Ulster captain Johann Muller sees Iain Henderson switch to the secondrow and Nick Williams introduced at blindside flanker. Muller’s genuine leadership and organisational ability, quite apart from his talent, will be missed but the home side will benefit from Williams’ corrosive ball carrying.
Chris Henry, in the midst of a brilliant season for Ulster and Ireland, takes over the captaincy and will be hoping to maintain his blemish free, tackle count of 39 from as many attempts. The key for the home side will be to maintain the integrity of performance, to retain the intensity that they demonstrated in all facets of the game in Northampton.
There’ll be a little more pressure on the lineout in the absence of Muller, while the scrum will be one of the key collisions. Ulster proved last weekend that if the pack provides the platform then they possess the subtlety and nous to create and exploit space: none extolled this virtue to better effect than the excellent Jared Payne at fullback.
Ruan Pienaar manages the game superbly, his vision, kicking and ability to break and link a consistent threat for opposing team. The home side have plenty of leaders in Rory Best, Henry, Pienaar, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble to negotiate a route to victory.
Mallinder will demand a positive reaction from his players to re-establish pride in the jersey but it would take a monumental effort to derail the home side. If Ulster are mentally attuned to the task in hand then the physical requirements are well within their compass.