Iain Henderson keenly aware Ulster need to sharpen things up to trim Tigers again
Ulster looking to complete a hat-trick of wins on the road in England to make Challenge Cup final
Ulster captain Iain Henderson leads his side to Welford Road to take on the Leicester Tigers in Friday night’s Challenge Cup semi-final. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Ulster captain Iain Henderson knows exactly what’s been going on in Leicester Tigers training this week but it will provide no solace or insight other than to accept that the English club will be extremely well prepared for Friday night’s European Challenge Cup semi-final clash.
Henderson worked under Leicester head coach Steve Borthwick as player and forwards coach respectively on the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand and is fully conversant with how forensically thorough the Englishman is in his analysis.
“He’s trying to bring Leicester back to a more detailed, clinical version of what they used to be. There used to be a lot of grunt and he’s trying to add a bit more brains. I know how anal he is with his research into other teams and the amount he will analyse their lineouts, the way they play, kick-offs, everything. He doesn’t leave any stone unturned.
“He was obviously a brilliant player at Saracens, as committed as he was, and I think he wants to bring that out in the guys he’s coaching. No doubt he’ll have them fired up [while] the backs will be looking to exploit space.”
Henderson, along with Ireland team-mate and fullback Jacob Stockdale, are two players whom Lions coach Warren Gatland will be considering ahead of announcing the squad next week to tour South Africa in the summer: any personal thoughts on the matter in respect of the two players superseded by Ulster team concerns in Leicester tonight.
So how would Henderson assess this Tigers team? “Big English pack, scrum and maul,” he smiled before adding “not to go back on stereotypes! We’ve looked a lot, not my area of expertise, at their kicking game to [when they] then maul penalties, looking to get [more] penalties.
“So we know we have to be big on our set-piece there, big on kick chase, ensuring we resource our rucks after good kicks from them. Obviously they have great kick threats, big ball carriers in the backrow. We’ve got a lot of areas we need to fix up that we didn’t get quite right last week.
“If [Jasper] Wiese or [Nemani] Nadolo or Ellis Genge, or any of those big boys get carrying with momentum like Connacht did [last weekend in the Rainbow Cup match], they will have a good day against us. What we need to do is sort our stuff out, fix what we needed to fix [after] Connacht and hopefully then we’ll be able to nullify those threats.”
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has made five changes to the team that lost to Connacht. Props Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore return to the frontrow, Alan O’Connor is named alongside Henderson in the secondrow, while Jordi Murphy will wear the number seven jersey. Matty Rea retains his place following a fine performance last weekend.
There is just one change to the backline with Stuart McCloskey resuming his centre partnership with James Hume. Michael Lowry and Will Addison, who returned to competitive action against Connacht following 15 months on the sidelines through injury, is part of a strong bench that includes former All Blacks scrumhalf Alby Mathewson.
Borthwick has chosen a strong team, reflected in the fact that England scrumhalf Ben Youngs and Argentine secondrow Thomas Lavanini are on the bench. Nadolo scored two tries when introduced against the Northampton Saints last weekend and it’ll be interesting to see how Robert Baloucoune copes with the sheer physical challenge that the Fijian imposes.
There is no place in the Leicester matchday squad for a couple of Irish underage internationals Johnny McPhillips and Dan Kelly who have featured regularly this season.
McPhillips played in the Irish 20s side that reached the World Junior Championship final against England in 2016 and Kelly, currently studying at Loughborough University, was part of the unbeaten Irish 20s in the 2020 Six Nations and should be a member of the Irish squad for this season’s tournament which takes place in June.
Ulster are looking for a third consecutive victory over English opposition on the road in the knock-out stage of the tournament. They have won seven of 10 matches against the Tigers in Europe including the last time the sides met at Welford Road.
The visitors will need to iron out the performance creases of last weekend, some mental in terms of concentration and application, others of a more technical nature that included some of the backline passing.
At their best Ulster have produced some excellent rugby and performances this season and that’s exactly the standard that they are going to have to reach to be successful. It’s about cutting out the mistakes, being hard-nosed and unrelenting and ultimately taking enough opportunities, all of which is within their compass.
LEICESTER TIGERS: F Steward; G Porter, M Moroni, M Scott, N Nadolo; G Ford, R Wigglesworth; E Genge, T Youngs (capt), D Cole; H Wells, C Green; G Martin, H Liebenberg, J Wiese.
Replacements: C Clare, L de Bruin, J Heyes, T Lavanini, C Brink, B Youngs, Z Henry, K Murimurivalu.
ULSTER: J Stockdale; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O’Connor, I Henderson (capt); M Rea, J Murphy, N Timoney.
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, T O’Toole, K Treadwell, S Reidy, A Mathewson, M Lowry, W Addison.
Referee: P Gauzere (France).