Unbeaten Ulster ready themselves for a big month
No less than the rest of the Irish provinces, Ulster face into something of a daunting, make-or-break midway spell in their season. Tomorrow they travel to Llanelli for a Pro12 summit meeting against the Scarlets, then five days later face the first of pivotal Heineken Cup matches with fellow pool pacesetters Northampton, and after a couple of Christmas derbies at home to Leinster and away to Munster, host the Scarlets in the New Year before decisive Euro pool games at home to Glasgow and away to Castres.
“It’s an exciting month for us and I think it will be a really good litmus test as to where we are,” said scrumhalf Paul Marshall. “It’s six massive games for us and it’s a serious month for us, and obviously we know that as a squad and we know that we need to look after ourselves on the pitch and off the pitch, and make sure that we’re professional in everything that we do so that we can try and be in a good position come the end of January.”
With Northampton having a seven-day turnaround for next Friday’s game, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has had to balance up all of these considerations. While he is grateful to welcome back captain Johann Muller for his first game in five weeks after a rapid recovery from a thumb operation, he has also rested backrowers Nick Williams and Chris Henry, in addition to backline stars Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace and Jared Payne after their various exertions in recent weeks.
Stephen Ferris, Lewis Stevenson and Declan Fitzpatrick are all sidelined through injury.
Callum Black and John Afoa are recalled to the frontrow alongside hooker Rob Herring, while Iain Henderson and Robbie Diack return to the backrow. Ireland squad members Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy all come straight back into the backline, while Peter Nelson gets another run at fullback.
Aside from Best – and this could be telling – a strong bench includes fellow internationals Tom Court, Dan Tuohy and Tommy Bowe.
After 11 wins from 11 outings in League and Europe, Ulster are defending the only unbeaten record this season across all three major leagues, but Marshall doesn’t think the pressure is weighing. “To be honest with you, we don’t really talk about it, but I know from myself that I don’t want to be in the team that loses first, and I think there’s probably quite a few guys who feel like that. I think there’s an underlying feeling that we want it to go on as long as possible but we don’t see it as a burden. We just see it as each game as it comes and try to win every game you play.”
In the process of their unbeaten start to the season, Ulster are attempting to complete an eye-catching clean sweep of League wins away to all four Welsh regions tomorrow but the Scarlets are coming off a sleeves-rolled-up win away to Munster last Sunday and the result will either eat significantly into Ulster’s six-point lead or extend it to nine or ten points.
After hailing the “outstanding” commitment his players showed in ending their 15-game losing run against Munster in Cork last Sunday, Simon Easterby said: “While we know we’ve got stern opposition, we’ve concentrated on ourselves this week, making sure we have our own house in order. We’ve been working closely with the players to help them improve their reading of the game as it’s happening encouraging them to take responsibility and show the mental agility to adapt as they need to.”
The Scarlets have won their last four games in the league whilst their only defeat in the tournament at Parc y Scarlets in their last 13 fixtures was 16-23 to Ospreys in September. No Irish province has won at the stadium since Leinster in September 2011.
But of the two records, with Ulster buoyed by the infectious return of Gilroy and co, the latter looks the most at risk.