Ulster’s bouncebackability under scrutiny in opening European pool tie against the Sale Sharks

The English side will bring a physicality that Ulster will struggle to match

Champions Cup: Sale Sharks v Ulster, AJ Bell stadium, Sunday, 1.0 – Live on BT Sport

The physical legacy of last weekend’s bruising defeat to Leinster denies Ulster the services of captain Iain Henderson and scrumhalf John Cooney, both of whom are following the graduated return to play protocols after suffering head injuries at the RDS. Any mental scars will be gauged over the 80 minutes of this Heineken Champions Cup tie.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland can reasonably expect a positive response from his players to the acute disappointment of watching a 22-3 lead and a man advantage vanish in a substandard second-half performance in Dublin. There were plenty of mitigating factors in losing key players at crucial times, but the lack of game management is a concern looking at the task ahead this weekend.

James Hume and Billy Burns have shaken off leg injuries, while Nathan Doak will replace Cooney at scrumhalf with David Shanahan coming into the replacements. Jacob Stockdale swaps places with Stewart Moore, the latter dropping to the bench despite an excellent performance in an unfamiliar role on the left wing.


Rob Herring and Tom O’Toole are promoted to the frontrow from the bench last weekend with Tom Stewart, having passed the return to play protocols, and Marty Moore heading in the opposite direction.

Matty Rea deputises for Henderson at blindside flanker, his brother Marcus losing out in a backrow reshuffle that sees Nick Timoney switch to openside, with Springbok Duane Vermeulen returning at number eight. Ben Moxham and Eric O’Sullivan are the other changes to the replacements.

Sale Sharks head coach Alex Sanderson welcomes back four England internationals in prop Bevan Rodd, secondrow Jonny Hill, flanker Tom Curry and centre Manu Tuilagi, while former Exeter Chiefs wing Tom O’Flaherty returns to the starting line-up for the first time since fracturing his jaw against Saracens.

There is a considerable South African influence in the Sale ranks, hooker Akker van der Merwe, affectionately known as ‘the angry warthog’, prop Nick Schonert, secondrow Cobus Wiese, twins Dan and Jean-Luc du Preez and their older brother, Rob, who captains the side from outhalf.

The Manchester club lie second in the English Premiership and will present Ulster with a massive physical challenge in terms of the set piece, breakdown, where Curry excels, and in terms of Tuilagi’s presence on both sides of the ball.

One aspect of Ulster’s performance that did fire against Leinster was their lineout maul, which yielded two tries: it’s been an area of strength all season. The visitors are going to have to front up physically as a basic requirement to be competitive as Sale will have noted how Leinster dominated the gainline in the second half last weekend.

Ulster’s kicking game will need to be better directed, both in terms of box-kicking and in finding space in the backfield. They must have the courage to play too because they are not going to outmuscle their hosts. It’ll be an afternoon for individuals to step up and drive the collective and in that respect the focus will zoom in on their Ireland squad members.

Sale start as three-point favourites with the bookmakers. Ulster possess the talent to win but the bigger question is whether they can supplement it with the control and character required to deliver the result over the 80 minutes.

SALE SHARKS: J Carpenter; A Reed, S James, M Tuilagi, T O’Flaherty; R du Preez (capt), F Warr; B Rodd, A van der Merwe, N Schonert; J Wiese, J Hill; J-L du Preez, T Curry, D du Preez.

Replacements: T Taylor, S McIntyre, J Jones, J Beaumont, J Ross, J Simpson, T Curtis, B McGuigan.

ULSTER: M Lowry; E McIlroy, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, N Doak; A Warwick, R Herring, T O’Toole; A O’Connor (capt), K Treadwell; Matty Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.

Replacements: T Stewart, E O’Sullivan, M Moore, S Carter, Marcus Rea, D Shanahan, S Moore, B Moxham.

Referee: M Raynal (France).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer