Ulster need good start to avoid sinking in deep pool
As a perfect illustration of the unexpected overtaking the planned, Johnny Sexton's withdrawal on Friday from the Leinster side to play Castres yesterday changed the complexion of today's game for Ulster in Bordeaux.
Initially the sub-plot was all about Paddy Jackson putting more heat on Sexton ahead of the November Test series. Now it's about Ian Madigan putting in the kind of performance that makes Joe Schmidt think hard about his policy of selecting only players based on the island.
If the Sexton injury develops into a game-stopper for him then the coach will have to look at Madigan in a different light. Providing the exile produces something worth reporting today.
"They've played with and against each other enough times," Craig Gilroy says. "They've got a friendship but a competitive rivalry at the same time. Jacko is a key man in our team and Madigan for them, but it's not going to be about one guy in each team. It's the full team, the 15 lads on the park need to work collectively as a unit and when we click, we can be pretty devastating.
"He [Jackson[ has been unbelievable. He is a joy to play with and it's been great to see him just getting better and better. I played with Jacko at school and he's coming on year after year. He had a fantastic summer tour with Ireland and has carried that form into this season."
Had Ulster not been undone in Galway last weekend then Jackson and co would have travelled in a much better frame of mind after a Guinness Pro 12 start that saw them unbeaten until the Sportsground.
This is a brute of a pool, so with Exeter and Clermont in the background Ulster's target has to be, at the minimum, not to come away empty handed against a side who have already lost at home once this season - to Montpellier in round three of the Top 14. Madigan has kicked a very healthy 63 points in five games, so Ulster will be hoping they can keep Irish referee JP Doyle onside.
Their concerns will be what happens at the scrum. Indeed so will Doyle's, for non-French referees dread the set-piece with the Top 14 teams. The flashing light here for Ulster is having a greenhorn like Ross Kane backing up Rodney Ah You. The latter's form has been good for Ulster so far, especially his carrying, which is a turnaround for him given he was considered surplus to requirements in Connacht.
It's critical that Ulster can stay in the fight here, for they have enough ammunition behind the scrum to do damage. Unfortunately for them they are still without Charles Piutau, and the absence of Louis Ludik and Stuart McCloskey leaves them very light on the bench, but having captain Andrew Trimble back in harness, along with Stuart Olding and Ruan Pienaar, is perfect timing.
Ulster are a different side when the Springbok is at nine, and these days he feels extra pressure to perform given his ticket being stamped to leave at the end of the season. If he has designs on going out on the right note then for a start they will have to cope with the best supported team in France, very well coached by the combination of Raphael Ibanez, Emile Ntmack and Joe Worsley. It promises to well worth watching.
Bordeaux: JM Buttin; A Ashley-Cooper, JB Dubie, R Lonca, B Connor; I Madigan, Y Lesgourges; J Poirot, C Maynadier, V Cobilas, J Marais (capt), C Cazeaux, AN Other, L Goujon, H Chalmers. Reps: O Avei, S Taofifenua, M Clerc, T Palmer, M Tauleigne; B Serin, L Beauxis, M Talebulamaijaina.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Best, R Ah You, A O'Connor, F van der Merwe, I Henderson, S Reidy, C Ross. Reps: R Herring, K McCall, R Kane, P Browne, R Wilson; P Marshall, J Stockdale, R Lyttle.
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
- Bordeaux-Begles v Ulster, Sky Sports 3, 1.0
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