Ulster look to secure quarter-final place with win against Bath
Dan McFarland makes one change to side as Tom O’Toole replaces injured Marty Moore
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland will expect his side to bounce back from last weekend’s defeat to Clermont Auvergne. Photograph: Craig Watson/Inphpo
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland might have spent a little of last weekend fulminating about his side’s wastefulness in the first half of their defeat to Clermont Auvergne. He expressed his disappointment after the match and one presumes in the Monday review.
The Irish province had the opportunity to dominate the scoreboard in the same manner in which they were in the ascendancy during those 40 minutes but that failure to take routine scoring chances was fatal to their prospects when the game flipped on its head in the second half at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
If the lesson is absorbed then it should serve the home side well against a Bath side that has lost all five matches in the Heineken Champions Cup this season, the latest of which was a 25-19 defeat to Harlequins at home last weekend.
Anthony Watson, Aled Brew, Max Green, Lewis Boyce, Christian Judge, Rhys Davies and Mike Williams drop out of the starting team. England internationals, flanker Sam Underhill and wing Ruaridh McConnochie are the two most high-profile returnees for the visitors.
McFarland’s side shows one injury enforced change to the run-on side, Ireland squad member Tom O’Toole replacing the injured Marty Moore. Will Addison has recovered from an injury that saw him limp off last week, while Ross Kane, Nick Timoney and Craig Gilroy have been parachuted onto the bench after missing out against Clermont.
Ulster know that victory will guarantee a place in the quarter-finals and that there is still the potential to do so as pool winners if Clermont were to lose or pick up less than two points in their game at the Stoop in London; a quick glance at the composition of the Harlequins team chosen for the game suggests that the French club will start as strong favourites.
Quite apart from what’s at stake for the collective, there are a number of personal subplots aside to the game in Belfast. The omission of centre Stuart McCloskey from Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad for the Six Nations Championship was a significant talking point. He’s been in excellent form this season and was part of the extended national group.
There is no doubt that he should have given the pass that would have led to a walk-in try last week in France, with a four-on-one overlap outside but that cannot be the reason for his omission. His playing ledger this season is appreciably in the black. Rather than puzzling why he has been left out, today’s match offers a platform to reinforce his qualities while recognising the importance of putting the team dynamic first.
As a consequence of the team playing well then players like Addison, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Rob Herring, and captain Iain Henderson should advance their cases in a national context. Robert Baloucoune’s presence in the development group to accompany the Irish squad to Portugal underlines both his potential and talent.
The Burns brothers, Billy for Ulster and Freddie in the number 10 jersey for Bath, will be in direct opposition, recreating the tussles of their childhood, while on a more tangential note, the presence of former Leinster backs’ coach Girvan Dempsey in the Bath backroom team will give the visitors firsthand knowledge of the venue and opposition.
At the start of the Champions Cup, Ulster would have been delighted to be in this position heading into the last weekend of the pool stage of the tournament. That should be reflected in the manner of their performance. There isn’t room for complacency or the imprecision of last weekend.
McFarland’s side have shown many times this season that they do possess the ruthlessness and quality to exploit weakness. Bath have nothing to play for but pride and that can be a little underwhelming as a fuel source if matters go awry early in a match.
Ulster know what they need to do and possess the wherewithal to accomplish that goal, and in that respect should fulfil all the requirements to take them into the knockout stages of the tournament.
Referee: A Ruiz (France).
Verdict: Ulster to win