Thursday 23 March 2017

Wallace says early momentum crucial for Ulster's European ambition

David Kelly

David Kelly

Maybe Ian Humphreys is having second thoughts about the wisdom of shaving off his beard. Like Samson, his powers seem to have receded since shearing his elaborate growth.

Only this week, he was a notable omission from Declan Kidney's cast assembled to prepare for the defence of the Grand Slam. And now, for Ulster's most important European game since last winning the Heineken Cup, head coach Brian McLaughlin has taken his biggest gamble of the season by torpedoing him from the first XV.

Niall O'Connor starts, with the indication from Paddy Wallace, among others, that eking out an early lead is of the utmost importance as Ulster cling to the slimmest of quarter-final qualification hopes.

Even a win here and a Stade Francais defeat in Edinburgh would not suffice to parachute Ulster into an unlikely pole position; due to an inferior head-to-head record against the French, they require all five points and hope Edinburgh deprive Stade of their bonus.

Realistically, it is maintaining their push for European involvement beyond the Six Nations, via the Amlin Challenge Cup, which will be the key focus for Ulster as they seek to jettison an appalling record on English soil. Ulster have failed to win in their last 11 attempts here, conceding 450 points and only preventing the home side from a four-try bonus point twice.

It's a dismal record and a microcosm of the province's embarrassing record in European combat since lifting the trophy at Lansdowne Road in 1999. Buoyed by holding their nerve at home to Edinburgh last weekend, Ulster are portraying signs of justifiable confidence heading into this afternoon's encounter.

"It was good to get the win last weekend," said skills coach Neil Doak. "We owed Edinburgh a turnaround after them beating us twice previously in the season. It was a good victory and it sets us up nicely for going to Bath.

"Bath are going to be a hard team to beat, it's their home ground. They're going to be very physical up front, so we're going to need to be solid at set- piece time to get some good quality ball, in order to put them under pressure defensively.

"We've got to go in with the attitude that we've got to win the game first, and then go for the bonus point. It's great to know how many Ulster fans are travelling. It's always nice to have a contingency away from home.

"If there are a thousand fans it'll be very good. I think they'll probably make as much noise as the entire Bath support. So it's about us and the team getting it right on the day, giving our fans plenty to shout about, which hopefully we can do over there."

Ulster will again be captained by Chris Henry from the base of the scrum. He is intent on securing more European rugby for returning captain Rory Best, who is due to line-out in the AIL for Banbridge against Barnhall this afternoon.

"This game is like a cup final; it is literally win or bust. We have to go to Bath with confidence because we know from some of our performances and results this season, we need not fear anyone," he said.

"There is a great buzz in the squad, mainly because everyone has bought into what was said a few months ago about wanting to be in the mix in Europe, right up until the last pool game. Everyone knows that this is it; we have to turn up and give it everything we have; only our best will do.

"It would be a shame to slip up now. If it is not the Heineken Cup we are playing in after this weekend, we have to make sure we are in the Amlin Challenge Cup. To do any of that, we have to win at The Rec."

Irish international Wallace echoes the theme. "The dream of qualification is still alive, even if it's out of our hands," he said. "We need to give ourselves the best chance but, because winning away from home is so difficult, that gives us an extra bit of motivation.

"We've proved we can win in tough places this season. Bath are playing for a lot of pride and we're expecting a physical encounter. If we can get points on board in the first 20 minutes, that will help us. A good start is key for us."

That may reveal the thought process behind the surprise decision to start O'Connor, who has only managed one start all season, a truncated appearance for an under-strength side defeated away to Leinster on St Stephen's Day.

Bath coach Steve Meehan has also made one change to the starting side that went so close to victory in Paris last weekend, with Stuart Hooper coming into the second row as Danny Grewcock's partner, with Peter Short dropping down to the bench.

In the only other alteration to the match-day 23 on duty for the 15-13 defeat to Stade Francais last Saturday, back-rower Jonny Fa'amatuainu returns among the replacements at Ben Skirving's expense.

Ulster's desire is greater and it is about time they stepped up in a significant away match. Maybe this is their time.

Verdict: Ulster

Bath -- J Maddock; M Stephenson, M Carraro, S Hape, M Banahan; N Little, M Claassens (capt); D Flatman, L Mears, D Wilson, D Grewcock, S Hooper, A Beattie, J Salvi, L Watson. Reps: P Dixon, D Barnes, A Jarvis, P Short, J Fa'amatuainu, S Bemand, R Davis, J Cuthbert.

Ulster -- J Smith; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, S Danielli; N O'Connor, I Boss; T Court, N Brady, B Botha, D Tuohy, E O'Donoghue, S Ferris, D Pollock, C Henry (capt). Reps: A Kyriacou, B Young, D Fitzpatrick, R Caldwell, T Anderson, C Willis, I Humphreys, T Nagusa.

REF -- J Garces (France).

Bath v Ulster,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 3.45

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