Boks to the wall
Ulster’s expensive overseas stars have to produce against Leicester tonight to justify their presence, writes Hugh Farrelly
THE overseas influx into Irish rugby can be equated to horse-racing -- take the money out of it and neither would exist.
We regularly hear foreign signings tell us how happily settled they are in Ireland, how they have been embraced by the locals and made many friends. All of which may well be true, but these players are not here for the love of the country alone -- cash also plays a part.
That is the nature of the business, acknowledged and accepted -- as long as there is a return on investment and, in this regard, Ulster's Heineken Cup showdown with Leicester at a sold-out Ravenhill tonight is a balance sheet barometer.
The Ulster team features five overseas internationals -- full-back Stefan Terblanche, scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, prop John Afoa, second-row Johann Muller, who leads the side, and No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg.
It is for matches such as this that they were signed -- lose to Leicester tonight and Ulster will find themselves -- barring a miracle -- out of Europe (Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup) and merely seeing out the remainder of the season in the hope of challenging for the Pro12 title.
Win tonight and Ulster keep their season singing for a while longer, travelling to Clermont next week with the scent of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in their nostrils for the second season in succession, and a sense of justification with regards to their selection policy.
That policy has not helped Ireland cater for their current lack of depth in the back-row. The country is screaming out for open-side wing-forwards, but Willie Faloon has played a bit-part role due to the presence of Wannenburg, with talented No 8 Chris Henry forced into the less-suited No 7 jersey, hurting his own international prospects in the process.
Likewise at tight-head prop, where Ireland need Tom Court to get as much game-time as possible.
But, with Afoa immense at No 3, Court has been featuring on the far side.
Scrum-half Paul Marshall has been in compelling form in Pienaar's absence off the bench and it looked like he would get the opportunity to audition on the big stage ahead of next week's much-anticipated Six Nations squad announcement due to Ian Humphreys' ankle injury.
However, extensive physio treatment means Humphreys starts at 10, resulting in no need to move Pienaar out and Marshall is back in a tracksuit, watching from the sidelines.
He is joined there by Ireland-qualified Australian Adam D'Arcy, one of Ulster's most threatening attackers this season, as Terblanche claims the No 15 jersey.
All of which is acceptable, to a point, if Ulster emerge victorious, especially as there are young Irish players such as Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave who will be big beneficiaries from the continued exposure to high intensity European rugby.
With a big performance tonight, Cave, partnered by the returning Paddy Wallace in midfield, is a live contender for the vacant Ireland No 13 jersey, while Gilroy is pushing hard for inclusion in the Wolfhounds side to face England Saxons at the end of the month.
Following an impressive Pro12 win away to Edinburgh last weekend, Cave was particularly bullish about Ulster's prospects this evening claiming that Sky Sports inclusion of Leicester among the tournament favourites was "ridiculous" and asking "what is this prediction based on?"
While self-confidence can be a good thing in young players, over-confidence can be a dangerous stance to adopt, particularly against grizzled opponents such as Leicester.
The truth is that, had Ulster not been drawn alongside an accommodating Aironi, they might not be in this position.
Though the Tigers are nowhere near the level they were at claiming back-to-back titles a decade ago, they are a side who should never, ever, be dismissed.
Their line-up may short on the marquee names of the Martin Johnson, Ben Kay, Neil Back era and they go into the contest minus injured internationals of the calibre of Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi, but Leicester can still call on some accomplished performers.
Geordan Murphy, as ever, is at full-back and, still available if needed by Ireland, carrying the motivation for another big performance.
Alessandro Tuilagi brings explosive power to the wing and Ben Youngs is a worthy opponent for Pienaar at scrum-half.
In the pack, England's favourite Kiwi Thomas Waldrom brings a forceful presence to the back-row alongside the athletic Tom Croft, while, in the front-row, there is the nous of Martin Castrogiovanni and Marcos Ayerza.
Leicester were comfortable winners in the Welford Road clash, but are two points behind Ulster in the table and arrive in Belfast with similar must-win prerogatives, backed up by the knowledge that they can take five points against Aironi in their final fixture tomorrow week.
Without playing sensationally well, Leicester's form has been on an upward graph and they have won their last four games to push them into the top four of the English Premiership.
All of which screams danger, but, while Rory Best was more circumspect than Cave in his summation of tonight's challenge, the Ireland hooker still exuded an air of conviction about the advantage lying with the home side.
"Their pack had the upper hand at Welford Road, but we can reverse that, particularly the way our pack has been performing of late and particularly since the arrival of John Afoa," said Best.
"We have notched up 10 points from our last two games in the PRO 12, so confidence is high and we believe we have the players who can handle big games against quality opposition."
The Ravenhill factor is a significant boon for Ulster, the players feed off the crowd and vice versa with Stephen Ferris' surges a particular fans' favourite.
So, it is all set up for a home win, founded on the quality of their imports and garnished by home-grown big-game performers such as Ferris, Best and Trimble. The alternative is the abyss.
For, while Munster and Leinster also lean on their overseas contingent in this competition, neither is as dependent as Ulster.
If Ulster do not produce the goods at home tonight, it will be case of blowing the rent on backing the wrong horses.
ULSTER -- S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg. Reps: N Brady, C Black, A Macklin, L Stevenson, W Faloon, P Marshall, I Whitten, A D'Arcy.
LEICESTER - G Murphy; H Agulla, M Smith, A Allen, A Tuilagi; B Twelvetrees, B Youngs; M Ayerza, R Hawkins, M Castrogiovanni; S Mafi, G Parling; T Croft, J Savi, T Waldrom. Reps: G Chuter, B Stankovich, D Cole, E Slater, B Woods, S Harrison, J Staunton, S Hamilton.
REF -- R Poite (France).
Ulster v Leicester,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 8.0