Ulster on the threshold of joining European elite
Henderson’s return a timely fillip as they try to seal the deal against Murphy’s Leicester
Geordan Murphy: Leicester have beaten Harlequins (35-24) and Gloucester (34-16) in their last two games since they made the Irishman full-time head coach. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Leicester Tigers v Ulster, Welford Road, 3.15 (Live on BT Sport)
Ulster stand on the threshold of qualification for the first time in five years, although this has uncanny echoes of the same point a year ago when they travelled to the English midlands to face a team out of contention.
Their results so far have exactly matched last season’s campaign, with three home wins bolstered by a back-to-back double in December – for Harlequins last year read the Scarlets this season.
Wasps had already decided to go into last season’s round six game at full-strength until results over the weekend ended their hopes of qualification, as they sought revenge for a round one defeat in Belfast. Even so, Ulster’s 26-7 beating was a kick in their collective teeth.
True, Ulster do look in better nick now, as well as a happier, more spirited group. In that Wasps game, Ulster’s pack were simply beaten up, but they didn’t have Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy and Marcel Coetzee that day, not to mention Will Addison. Hence they look a tougher proposition, especially up front.
The return of Iain Henderson, for his first game since December after undergoing thumb surgery in what will be his 100th appearance for the province, is a timely boost.
Henderson’s last outing was his inspirational two-try performance in the home win over the Scarlets, and his lineout ability, ball-carrying and choke tackling – there are few better exponents of the art – gives the Ulster pack another dimension.
His return, with Alan O’Connor dropping to the bench, is the only change to Ulster’s starting XV for although first-choice goalkicker John Cooney is deemed fit enough to return to the match-day squad, Dave Shanahan retains his place at scrumhalf.
Although Leicester’s scrum, as they showed in the first meeting at the Kingspan Stadium, remains a weapon – even if they mostly scrummage for penalties – their pack carries nothing like the ferocity of the Tigers in their pomp.
Furthermore, the Ulster scrum is unrecognisable from that night last October. Eric O’Sullivan hadn’t emerged for Ulster by then, and has started nine games since – including all four in Europe. That October meeting was Marty Moore’s debut, and first game in months, whereas he has started ten more since.
Facing into two dead rubbers, not surprisingly Geordan Murphy has clearly targeted this game, for Youngs and Ford are among eight changes from the somewhat callow starting team which were demolished 33-10 away by the Scarlets last week.
Leicester have beaten Harlequins (35-24) and Gloucester (34-16) in their last two games since they made Murphy full-time head coach, but that arrested a run of four successive home defeats.
In truth, Welford Road is not the foreboding place of yore. After a run of just one defeat in 34 games in the Champions Cup, Leicester have now lost four of their last six at Welford Road.
“These days it’s less of a fortress and more of a Wendy House,” according to the English rugby writer Chris Hewitt on the Second Captains’ podcast this week.
Then again, Ulster have only won three of nine games on the road this season, against the Kings, Treviso and the Scarlets. True, that 25-24 win at Parc Y Scarlets, augmented by three home wins out of three, is what has given them a shot at the quarter-finals.
At the Kingspan Stadium, as they showed last week, Ulster can be a match for anyone. But the question remains as to whether they can produce such an inspired performance away from home.
Discipline is key for an away team and, helpfully thus far, Ulster have conceded the least number of penalties (34 at less than seven per game) in the tournament thus far, while Leicester have incurred the most yellow cards (five).
And there is always, of course, the Jacob Stockdale factor. The winger is on course to score in every round of the pool stages.
LEICESTER TIGERS: Jonah Holmes; Jonny May, Manu Tuilagi, Matt To’omua, Jordan Olowofela; George Ford (capt), Ben Youngs; Greg Bateman, Jake Kerr, Dan Cole; Michael Fitzgerald, Graham Kitchener; Mike Williams, Brendon O’Connor, Sione Kalafamoni.
Replacements: Ross McMillan, Facundo Gigena, Joe Heyes, Harry Wells, William Evans, Benjamin White, Joe Ford, Sam Aspland-Robinson.
ULSTER: L Ludik; R Baloucoune, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, D Shanahan; E O’Sullivan, R Best (capt), M Moore; I Henderson, K Treadwell; S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, R Kane, A O’Connor, N Timoney, J Cooney, M Lowry, D Cave.
Referee: Alexandre Ruiz (France)
Head-to-head record: Played 9, Leicester 3 wins, Ulster 6 wins.
Leading points scorers: Leicester: George Ford 35. Ulster: Jacob Stockdale 30, John Cooney 29.
Leading try scorers: Leicester: Manu Tuilagi 3. Ulster: Stockdale 6.
Betting (Paddy Power): 6/5 Leicester, 19/1 Draw, 4/6 Ulster. Handicap odds (Leicester +2pts) 10/11 Leicester, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Ulster.
Forecast: Ulster to win.