Ulster face Northampton well aware of 15-year drought

Stuart McCloskey says province can use lack of silverware as a motivating factor

Ulster’s Sean Reidy on his way to scoring a try against Harlequins. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Challenge Cup quarter-final: Northampton Saints v Ulster

Kick-off: 8pm, Saturday. Venue: Franklin’s Gardens. On TV: Live on BT Sport.

Stuart McCloskey was asked about it earlier in the week. It being Ulster’s largely bare trophy cabinet. The mention of it, well it is not the brightest motivational tool to take out in the lead up to their Challenge Cup quarter-final against Northampton Saints.

The Ulster centre, however, was not the one who brought up the issue of theur 15-year drought. It has been a perennial question and each season as they launch into another pivotal knockout game, the players are reminded.


But McCloskey, this week, was not the only Ulster player not thinking about the consequences of another year of near and far misses.

“We really haven’t spoken about it in terms of progression,” he said. “We used to go into every competition, when it started, wanting to win it and it would be good to get that monkey off or back. We haven’t won anything since the league in 2006.

“It would be brilliant for us to get some sort of silverware. We haven’t talked about it as progression as a team. I think we are just taking it week by week just trying to win the games and the competition as a whole.”

For that challenge Ulster have put out a decent, if not their strongest, side with Ian Madigan again on the bench and Billy Burns starting at outhalf beside John Cooney. The back three of Michael Lowry, Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune is blended muscle and speed with McCloskey partnering James Hume in the centre.

Jordi Murphy captains the team from the openside in the absence of injured Iain Henderson. Given Henderson’s form, that’s a blow to Ulster especially in the absence of Marcell Coetzee, Jack McGrath, Will Addison and Luke Marshall. The only change to the squad that beat a light Harlequins side a week ago is Greg Jones on the bench in place of lock Cormac Izuchukwu.

Northampton have not shown the same degree of squeamishness as Harlequins did in holding back their marquee names and have introduced a few including Welsh outhalf and place-kicker Dan Biggar and England forwards Lewis Ludlam, Nick Isiekwe and David Ribbans - who was called into the squad last October by Eddie Jones. Courtney Lawes and Owen Franks, however, remain sidelined through injury.

Northampton will be prepared to start faster than they did last week, when they fell 20 points behind against Dragons before racing to the finish line, winning 43-39.

When Northampton and Ulster last met in a European quarter-final, the English club won, earning them a place in the 2010-11 Champions Cup final, where they lost to a Leinster side that recovered from 22-6 down at half time to win. While Northampton still have a chance to win two trophies this year, they are also building for the future with a group of younger players in Alex Mitchell, Ollie Sleightholme and Tommy Freeman.

For McCloskey, since he started playing for Ulster, he has always had a good feeling playing away from home against English clubs.

“Ever since I have been playing we have done quite well over in England,” he said. “I remember at the start we lost to Leicester and Saracens a couple of times. The mentality going over there has been pretty good. The team is probably a bit more even now. Back in the day we just didn’t have the players that we have now so we are probably a better team.”

It’s a better frame of mind than fretting the trophy drought and Ulster travel to Franklin’s Gardens with confidence. There’s a real possibility this weekend of a European semi-final.

Northampton Saints: T Freeman; O Sleightholme, R Hutchinson, P Francis, T Naiyaravoro; D Biggar, A Mitchell; A Waller (c), S Matavesi, P Hill; D Ribbans, A Coles; N Isiekwe, L Ludlam, T Harrison. Replacements: M Haywood, N Auterac, E Painter, A Moon, T Wood, T James, A Tuala, F Dingwall.

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, M Rea, G Jones, A Mathewson, I Madigan, E McIlroy.

Referee: A Ruiz (Fra).

Verdict: Ulster.