Makeshift Harlequins side should hold no fear for Ulster
Dan McFarland’s side should have the firepower needed to progress in Challenge Cup
Jacob Stockdale starts on the wing for Ulster against Harlequins. Photograph: Ryan Hiscott/Inpho
Challenge Cup last-16: Harlequins v Ulster, Sunday April 4th, The Stoop (kick-off 8pm, BT Sport)
A principal requirement for Ulster to secure victory and advance to the last eight of the European Challenge Cup is to be mentally attuned to the task in London as much as physically primed after Harlequins elected to select a mishmash of fringe and academy players as well as those returning from injury.
The absence of Mike Brown, Joe Marchant, Marcus Smith, Danny Care, Joe Marler, Alex Dombrandt, Andre Esterhuizen, Wilco Louw and poacher extraordinaire Will Evans graphically illustrates where the European competition fits in the pecking order of ambition for a club that currently lies fourth in the English Premiership. The game still has to be won on the pitch but the hosts have given Ulster every incentive before a ball is kicked.
There will be a couple of familiar faces in the Harlequins colours. The 25-year-old outhalf Brett Herron spent a couple of seasons with Ulster - he played club rugby with Ballymena - before moving to the Jersey Reds in 2018 and subsequently arriving at The Stoop the following year.
Wexford born, ex-Glenstal pupil and former Munster academy scrumhalf Jack Stafford is named among the replacements. The 23-year-old initially arrived on a two week trial last summer following the news that Niall Saunders (23), the former Irish 20s scrumhalf, had to retire from rugby following an illness.
Stafford was initially offered a short term contract but has impressed sufficiently to be added to the playing roster where he competes with three internationals Danny Care (England), Martin Landajo (Argentina) and Scott Steele (Scotland).
The departure of head coach Paul Gustard earlier in the season necessitated a reshuffle in the backroom team with New Zealand born former ‘Quins outhalf Nick Evans (backs), former Wales and Lions prop Adam Jones (scrum) and ex Irish hooker and Munster assistant coach, Jerry Flannery (defence, lineout) working under Australian Billy Millard, once of Connacht, as director of rugby.
Ulster are without their captain Iain Henderson who hasn’t been able to shake off a shoulder problem that he sustained while on Ireland duty during the Six Nations, where he enjoyed a hugely positive impact in key games. Springbok number eight Marcell Coetzee is another notable absentee.
Head coach Dan McFarland though was able to call upon Billy Burns, who has recovered from a leg injury while on Ireland duty. He will link up with John Cooney at halfback. Michael Lowry returns to the fullback role and there is plenty of pace, power and ultimately potency in a three quarter line manned by Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale.
Ireland hooker Rob Herring returns to the frontrow while Alan O’Connor is partnered in the secondrow by Kieran Treadwell who joined the province from Harlequins. Nick Timoney has been consistently excellent in Ulster colours this season and will be flanked in the backrow the backrow by the equally influential Sean Reidy and Jordi Murphy, who leads the team.
Tullamore’s Cormac Izuchukwu is in line to make his European debut off the bench while the promising Ethan McIlroy is a young player with oodles of ability. It’s very important for Ulster to get their detail right from the get-go and produce a performance that is suitably focused.
The visitors possess the quality behind the scrum to capitalise if the pack provides a platform and there’s little doubt that they will want to play the game with width and tempo.
They’re five point favourites with the bookmakers. Harlequins have nothing to lose in some respects given their selection and that freedom could be dangerous if properly harnessed but Ulster have the tools to dampen the enthusiasm and ultimately eke out the victory.
Harlequins: T Green; L Northmore, J Lang, P Lasike, N Earle; B Herron, S Steele; S Garcia Botta, E Elia, W Collier; H Tizard, G Hammond: A White, J Kenningham, T Lawday (capt). Replacements: G Head, J Els, S Kerrod, T Cavubati, M Jurevicius, J Stafford, B Tapuai, R Chisholm.
Ulster: M Lowry; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, M Moore; A O’Connor, K Treadwell; S Reidy, J Murphy (capt), N Timoney. Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, T O’Toole, C Izuchukwu, Matty Rea, A Mathewson, I Madigan, E McIlroy.
Referee: R Poite (France).