Return of Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar offsets loss of Tommy Bowe and Rory Best

Anscombe wary of Italian opposition for what he calls a ‘must win’ game

Although resigned to being without Tommy Bowe, as well as Rory Best due to injuries sustained while on Irish international duty, Ulster have been boosted by the anticipated return of captain Johann Muller and scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar for the first of their back-to-back Heineken Cup matches against Treviso at Ravenhill on Saturday.

Coach Mark Ancsombe is also optimistic about the prospects of Jarred Payne after all three of those frontline imports missed last weekend's hard-earned 19-11 win away to Zebre in the Rabo Pro12. Paddy Wallace, who damaged his anterior cruciate ligament against Glasgow in the Pro12 defeat last February, and signed a one-year extension in April, is in line for a return with the Ulster Ravens away to Ayr on Saturday.

The nature of Saturday's victory away to Zebre could also be a timely reminder of Ulster's difficulties against Italian opposition, given it was the first of four successive games against the Italian regions and also bearing in mind last season's 29-all home draw in the League with Treviso. Anscombe is evidently determined to counter any hint of complacency in Ulster's ranks.

'Track record'
"Predominantly we do not have a great track record against them, the fact is last week's performance in Zebre showed that," said Anscombe at Ulster's media day in Ravenhill yesterday. "We did not play well. We were lucky twice last year against Treviso, and in my short time here the Italian sides worry me just as much as any other team in the competition.

“Treviso have not had the season I am sure they would have liked to have backed up last season, but in saying that I still respect them enormously in the sense that I thought they would be the movers this year. They have not been yet, but I do not underestimate them for one second.”


Anscombe was especially critical of Ulster’s defending. “There were some phases on our attack where we did quite well. And yes we only leaked one try, but I think defensively it was the worst performance of the year. We lacked urgency, hunger and we were too passive.

“It was a little bit of a mind set and that was the disappointment of the game in that we did not mentally front up. We got away with it. We know that when we front up we are a good team and we know sometimes that when we drop that a little bit we are just one of the also rans.”

Ulster are well placed in Pool 5 having backed up their home win over Leicester with that hugely impressive win away to Montpellier in round two, but Anscombe stressed all of that will be hugely undermined if they don't beat Treviso.

'We have to win'
"The thing is we know that what has been has been and we cannot control any of that. We are playing Treviso at home this weekend and if we are to have any hope of qualifying we have to win."

Meanwhile the Ligue Nationale de Rugby were last night close to completing a new accord with the French Federation which will effectively ensure their participation in next season’s Heineken Cup. Included in the accord is a clause which binds the French clubs to participate in the next season’s tournament, which the LNR has said will be “transitional” pending the creation of a new UEFA-type European governing body.

That is still unlikely to lure the English clubs to participate, with initial soundings from leading figures in the Aviva Premiership clubs indicating a strong desire to boycott the tournament next season. Following on from their deal with BT, the LNR appear set to follow suit by surprisingly putting the TV rights to the Top 14 out to tender despite the willingness of Canal+ to reportedly double their current €30 million-per-year contract. Some club presidents believe that beIN Sport, who televised some pre-season friendlies, will bid more than that.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times