Ulster must keep eye on the ball to make title statement
ULSTER went for the jugular in Northampton eight days ago, and their challenge this evening is to do it all over again.
Mark Anscombe's side should be targeting the top-seed position at the end of the Heineken Cup pool stages and this is the time to make a statement. They filleted Northampton at Franklin's Gardens, and on home soil they should be even better.
In round five of last year's competition, the northern province destroyed Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill to really announce their arrival at Europe's top table.
Having won at Thomond Park en route to the final before going the first 13 matches of this season unbeaten, few doubt that Ulster deserve their place among the elite, but if they are to take advantage of that fine start when the business end of the season arrives, then they should be looking to finish at the top of the European tree.
The coach's job is both to keep feet on the ground and to make sure that complacency does not set in.
Given Leinster are coming to town next Friday night, there is also an imperative that eyes do not drift beyond Northampton, who are unlikely to be as submissive this time around.
These back-to-back December games take on a life of their own and Saints full-back Ben Foden, who retains his place despite having a self-confessed nightmare last weekend, has called on his side to respond in this rematch.
"Losing to Ulster stung so much," he said. "The performance let us down, as individuals and as a team. There is no finger-pointing – we sat down and took the blame as a team, and we know we have to make things better.
"It is a big ask to go to Ravenhill and beat an undefeated side, but for us it is about pride and getting back on track. We did not play as well as Ulster as a team and obviously we will bridge that gap if we perform to our potential."
Coach Jim Mallinder has wielded the axe elsewhere, with erstwhile England golden boy Courtney Lawes sacrificed for Calum Clark and Brian Mujati replaced by former Trinity prop Paul Doran-Jones. Hooker Mike Haywood comes in for the suspended Dylan Hartley.
Henderson's display will be closely watched by Ireland's coaches, who see him primarily as a back-row. But the 20-year-old played for Ireland U-20s in the second-row, and he has the height and presence, if not yet the bulk, to be a Test lock in years to come.
Muller's physical presence will be missed in the tight, where Ulster dominated the usually powerful Saints last weekend, but there are enough muscular players in the pack who can deputise.
They clearly had the better of the English side behind the scrum last weekend, when New Zealander Jared Payne was imperious outside the hard-working Wallace and Darren Cave.
With the forecast for a dry day in Belfast, Anscombe will be hoping that the power up front can generate plenty of space for a backline that is improving as the season goes on.
Their excellent defence – they made nearly 100 more tackles than their hosts at Franklyn's Gardens – received huge praise last weekend and the man in charge of that area, Jonathan Bell, called on his charges to repeat the trick tonight.
"We do have to keep balancing things though, as we know Northampton will turn up this weekend and will offer different threats," the former Ireland centre said.
"We have to be alive and awake to them. They are going to want to put that physical battle they lost behind them and really turn up on the pitch this week.
"Look, we had a great result last week and everyone is very positive about that. But we have to make sure the have the focus and balance because if we get ahead of ourselves we will trip up.
"If we do not get the result this weekend, then all the work that went on in Northampton has gone to waste."
Former All Black prop John Afoa admitted that the 25-6 win last weekend has had an impact.
"It's tough," he said. "But we trained really hard last week and built ourselves up for that trip to Franklin's Gardens, now it is same again, but with a lot of sore bodies.
"There was such an emotional build-up to that first game and it was hard going. But that's what good teams do and it is up to us to do the same again."
That is the task that awaits last year's finalists, but it is one they are more than capable of achieving.
The consensus is that Ulster are among the favourites for the title this season. An emphatic win would confirm that.
Verdict: Ulster, with a bonus point.
ULSTER – J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; I Henderson, D Tuohy; N Williams, C Henry (capt), R Wilson. Reps: N Brady, C Black, R Lutton, N McComb, R Diack, P Marshall, L Marshall, C Gilroy.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS – B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, T May, J Elliott; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, M Haywood, P Doran Jones; S Manoa, C Clark; T Wood, P Dowson (capt), GJ van Velze. Reps: R McMillan, A Waller, B Mujati, M Sorenson, C Lawes, M Roberts, R Lamb, L Burrell.
REF – N Owens ( Wales).
Ulster v Northampton Saints,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 6.0
Three things Ulster must do
1 Start as they finished
Northampton were truly humbled at home last Friday. If they can get up a head of steam early on, then the hurt they suffered could come out in a performance. But if Ulster score early, English heads will drop and the bonus point will be on.
2 Win physical battle
Northampton are known in the Premiership for being one of the toughest sides to beat up front, but Ulster dominated them in that department last time.
3 Score four tries
Ulster are being touted as potential winners and should be targeting the top seed position and a home quarter-final. Having crossed four times last weekend away, they will be disappointed if they can't do it again this time out.