Same again should do the trick for Ulster against Harlequins
Harlequins missing some big names for the Champions Cup visit to Belfast
Iain Henderson: led his Ulster team-mates from the front against Harlequins last week. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
There may be times when the Ulster players and management feel external barracking is both tiresome and harsh especially when parsed against just three defeats in 13 across both domestic and European tournaments.
The figures are robust but a couple of performances in Pro14 matches ahead of the second tranche of Champions Cup pool games permitted critics to arm themselves with plenty of material. Lacklustre defending pre-empted the concession of soft tries, the opposition not required to work hard in creating breaches while there was a slight misstep in some of the attacking patterns too.
A swirl of negativity threatened to engulf the squad ahead of last weekend’s game against Harlequins at The Stoop. Would Ulster be able to compete in the tight five? Were they be physical enough up front to guarantee a platform for the backline and would any creativity be complemented by ruthless execution? Few bargained for the Alpine postcard backdrop to the match.
Les Kiss, Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel came up with a game-plan, tweaked it to allow for the conditions, and the players implemented it pretty effectively.
Callum Black had a super match, Wiehahn Herbst anchored the scrum, reduced Lions and England loosehead Joe Marler to a peripheral figure while Kieran Treadwell and Alan O’Connor worked diligently on both sides of the ball.
The backrow disrupted Harlequins to the point of distraction, tackling, harrying, forcing turnovers and ensuring speed of ball at the breakdown. Iain Henderson proved imperious, the captaincy in the absence of the injured Rory Best, sitting easily on his broad shoulders.
The 25-year-old is outwardly laid back when quizzed about additional responsibility but as he explained it is something for which he prepares. “I spend a lot of time with Rory [Best], over the summer, Ireland camps, Ulster training, and you learn an awful lot working with good leaders.
“At this stage, when I find out that I might be captaining the side, you sort of start to gather your thoughts, try to understand what previous leaders have done and what you can recall; [look at] why they were good leaders and take a bit of that.”
He suggested that all good leaders do so first by deed, at training first and then in matches and that they require a support mechanism.
“I think as captain, you have to rely an awful lot on [experienced] experienced) boys around you. As I was happy to take over the captaincy, they were happy to take leadership roles within the team too. I’m enjoying it and just trying to take it week by week.”
His performance merely reinforced that the IRFU should expedite his contract negotiation if it’s financially feasible. Henderson won’t be distracted. Nick Timoney, in his debut season as a regular first team player, has been consistently excellent while Sean Reidy, who had a hand in Jacob Stockdale’s try last Sunday, can feel slightly unfortunate in dropping to the bench. He’s a very good link player.
Chris Henry, who made an impact as a second half replacement, is promoted to the starting line-up while the other change sees Louis Ludik replace the injured Tommy Bowe (hamstring) at outside centre. John Cooney enjoyed an excellent game at scrumhalf in every respect, so too Stuart McCloskey while Jacob Stockdale’s knack of scoring tries and finding gaps shows no signs of abating.
Friday night’s conditions should be more conducive to exploiting the exceptional attacking ability of Charles Piutau and also Craig Gilroy, the latter’s pace and footwork a real handful, while outhalf Christian Lealiifano nuanced passing game should be much more in evidence.
Harlequins have travelled without three English internationals and pivotal figures Chris Robshaw, Danny Care, both of who sustained concussions last weekend and Marler, who picked up an injury. England fullback Mike Brown and former Scottish international wing Tim Visser drop to the bench as John Kingston makes six changes from the side that lost last Sunday.
The Harlequins coach said his players are seeking to guarantee integrity of performance in Belfast as reparation in part for last Sunday’s disappointing showing. The English club suffered from slipshod handling and poor decision making and execution that was in marked contrast to their brilliant last-ditch victory over Saracens in a Premiership match the previous weekend.
Ulster have some things to work on too, notably their lineout, but if they bring the same aggression and organisation in defence, are accurate in attack and ensure no complacency then they can take both satisfaction and momentum when they face into some tough interprovincial matches in the Pro14 over the festive period.
Given the high-profile absences from the Harlequins team it might just render them easier to beat but not necessarily easy.
ULSTER: C Piutau; C Gilroy, L Ludik, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; C Black, R Herring, W Herbst; A O’Connor, K Treadwell, I Henderson (capt), C Henry, N Timoney. Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, R Kane, M Rea, S Reidy, P Marshall, P Nelson, A Trimble.
HARLEQUINS: R Chisholm; C Walker, W Stanley, J Roberts, A Alofa; M Smith, I Prior; L Boyce, E Elia, K Sinckler; G Merrick, C Matthews; A White, D Ward (capt), R Bothma. Replacements: C Piper, M Lambert, P Swainston, M Luamanu, D Lamb, J Lang, T Visser, M Brown.
Referee: Alexandre Ruiz (France).