Ulster include Grand Slam trio in squad for trip to Cardiff
Struggling province may call upon the services of Best, Henderson and Stockdale
Jono Gibbes: “My message to the group is that we’ve got no margin of error in our preparation.” Photograph: Jonathan Porter/Inpho
There is no mistaking the sense of it now being all hands to the pump at Ulster.
So, the struggling province have sought to tap into some positivity by revealing that Ireland Grand Slam trio of skipper Rory Best, Iain Henderson – the latter two now with IRFU contract extensions to keep them at the province – and Jacob Stockdale are all potentially available to them for Saturday’s Pro14 clash at Cardiff Blues.
Though it is unclear whether all three will actually be part of the match-day squad – both Best and Stockdale have had pretty heavy schedules over the Six Nations – soon to depart Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes hinted that the players are in line to be involved and especially so as the province have no game next week during Europe’s knockout stages.
“To have them around after what they have just experienced [a Grand Slam] will be a boost for us,” said Gibbes.
His departure a year early to return home to Waikato at the season’s end was announced in the wake of last month’s postponed home game with Glasgow. It added another layer to Ulster’s crisis-hit season.
“What part they’ll play straight away, I don’t know, but just having their quality around is great for us and we’re able to formulate some recuperation for them later on,” he added ahead of another vital game for Ulster who have not played since late February’s defeat at the Scarlets.
Gibbes also alluded to Best’s IRFU contract extension until after next year’s World Cup as being hugely beneficial for morale as is future Ulster skipper Henderson’s deal keeping him in Belfast until 2021.
“Having people like that, and they are local guys, is great, but first and foremost they are consistent performers,” said Gibbes. “Rory is such a competitive guy and those sort of values are a great thing to have.
“Their quality helps other guys who are up-and-coming and it educates the next generation coming through.”
Right now, Ulster need to tap into anything they can find with their season in real danger of free-falling with just five regulation season games remaining.
The northern province trail Edinburgh – who are third in Conference B and in place to make the Pro14 playoffs and qualify automatically for next season’s Champions Cup – by nine points, though Ulster have a game in hand, while Benetton are breathing down the fourth-placed Irish side’s necks for the right to playoff just to make the cut for the Champions Cup.
With Saturday’s opponents the Blues going strong – they have won their last four Pro14 games – and Ulster’s away record pretty dire, the odds looked stacked against Gibbes’s squad on Cardiff’s artificial surface.
“A bit of consistency would be good,” the Kiwi stated, “those guys [Best, Henderson and Stockdale] coming in will help the consistency and preparation.
“My message to the group is that we’ve got no margin of error in our preparation [for Ulster’s last five games].”
Selection-wise the province should have Charles Piutau back in the starting side though backrow Sean Reidy is still sidelined by injury along with Robbie Diack.