Ulster in survival mode for make-or-break clash with Scarlets
European Champions Cup survival on line for Neil Doak’s injury-ravaged side
Ulster’s Ian Humphreys charges through the Scarlets defence during the European Rugby Champions Cup at the Kingspan Stadium. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Luke Marshall may have returned but Stuart Olding, Wiehahn Herbst, Nick Williams and Stuart McCloskey stack Ulster’s injury pile higher than Neil Doak could have expected. Last week’s bonus-point win over the Welsh side has come at quite a cost.
Like Marshall, Olding will now be closely monitored. It is the young centre’s third concussion and he takes a break, although Franco van der Merwe has completed his head-injury protocols and starts for the return match against Scarlets.
More positively, the Ulster backline houses real threat with Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy. Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys were also pivotal figures last week. Humphreys’s kicking was far from perfect but his creative play at outhalf was a significant factor in Ulster scoring four tries.
Abrasive and experienced
Look at that injury list again, however, and the suspicion is Ulster may struggle in the pack. Chris Henry, Iain Henderson, Williams and Herbst would under normal circumstances be starters, although with Roger Wilson coming in they have an abrasive and experienced number 8.
Clive Ross will bring his own combative traits into the backrow. Ross, a cousin of Leinster tighthead prop, Mike, only joined Ulster on trial from Lansdowne over the summer.
Last week Ulster were gifted some of their points when flanker James Davies saw yellow for a petulant no-arms tackle on Humphreys and then Wales fullback Liam Williams picked up his third yellow of the season for a dangerous tackle.
Scarlets would like to think that won’t happen again but Williams makes that far from a certainty. They have, however, beaten Leicester 15-3 in Wales, and let’s not forget Leicester beat Toulon last week so Scarlets have the ability to step up their game.
The sides have met seven times, Ulster winning four and Scarlets two, with one draw. It is the third time since September the sides have come together, playing out a Pro12 32-32 draw at Parc y Scarlets at the beginning of the season.
With only the top finishers assured of a quarter-final spot, Ulster and Scarlets are chasing one of the three best runners-up places from the five pools, making a win today critical for both teams.
Kiwi coach Wayne Pivac has made three changes to his Scarlets side. Kristian Phillips returns on the right-wing in place of Harry Robinson, and Rhodri Williams takes over at scrum-half from Aled Davies, while former captain Rob McCusker starts in the backrow.
“There were several differences between the sides last weekend. The opportunities they created through [our] ill-discipline were converted into points and they were very clinical,” said Pivac. “There’s only a win in it between top and bottom and we’re still very much in charge of our destiny.
“The game is massive for us now – Tigers did both us themselves and Ulster a favour [by beating Toulon]. This is a massive game in the context of our European championship.”
Experienced Scottish flanker John Barclay hasn’t recovered from a thigh injury, with veteran prop Phil John recovering from surgery to fix a long-standing knee problem. Captain Ken Owens and scrum-half Gareth Davies remain on the long-term injured list.