Ferris not giving up on Ulster's dream
Ulster's Stephen Ferris, fresh from confirming his allegiance to the underperforming province until the end of his current deal in 2011, has hinted that he may stay on even longer in his desire to recapture the side's glory days in Europe.
Ulster were the first Irish winners of the Heineken Cup in 1999, but they have failed to reach the knock-out stages since, and few would bet against the current crop beating the odds this time around as they require bonus-point wins from both tonight's tussle and next week's trip to the Rec against Bath -- not to mention favourable results elsewhere.
However, such is Ferris' loyalty to the province, who aided his transformation from a life of toil as a manual labourer into one of Europe's biggest stars, he is determined to remain as long as it takes to resuscitate Ulster's reputation as a serious rugby force.
"The Heineken Cup to me is something I really want to win in my career," said Ferris. "Hopefully, I'll be here for another few years, because I really want to win a Heineken Cup with Ulster.
"There's an opportunity for us this year still and hopefully, we'll be able to put on a couple of good performances and give ourselves the best opportunity. This is the biggest game of my season so far and it's a make-or-break one for Ulster."
Given that Ferris formed part of the immense resistance against South Africa in Croke Park, his reference to this as the "biggest game of his season" indicates how inextricably linked Ferris remains to his province.
"This is going to be a massive game for us. All the lads are really well prepared, even if we were hampered a small bit by the weather, but the appetite is massive," he said. "Our home record is one of the best in the competition and hopefully, we can do a job on Edinburgh and keep that run going."
Since the introduction of bonus points, only the wily veterans Leicester have squeezed through on 19 points as a second-placed qualifier, the maximum now available to both these sides, so the odds are virtually insurmountable, especially if one takes into account the inconvenience of Stade Francais being required to extract a fat zero from their next two outings.
Hence, despite both camps' weighty words, this is effectively a tussle to see who can parachute into the Amlin Challenge Cup. And, given these sides' dreadful records in the major European sphere, a more meaningful excursion to a level where both can realistically challenge for the major honours would clearly be more beneficial to their respective development.
There will, thus, be a modicum of stress on display, although Darren Cave sought to deflect any of the spotlight, even as he admits to struggling with his form in recent matches.
"I wouldn't say we're feeling the pressure, I'd say we're very excited. At this stage last year we didn't really have anything to play for, now with these two games left in the Heineken Cup, we can win the group," he said.
"If we finish second we still either go through to the quarter-finals or into the Amlin Challenge Cup, so I think, as a young team, that's incredibly exciting. Edinburgh are a very hard team to beat, but we showed in both the games we played against them, that we can break them down. We're confident that we can cause them problems if we get our game right. Our performances have been reasonable since our poor display against Glasgow and it is really all about how clinical we are.
"We played some nice rugby against Leinster, but were not clinical enough, whereas we did take our try-scoring chances against Munster. I was delighted with my form in November. I didn't feature as much as I'd have liked last month, but there is no better opportunity to find my form than in this game."
Cave has been rewarded with a starting berth alongside Paddy Wallace in the centre, supplanting Ian Whitten. In the pack, the only other change from the side that beat Munster at home sees David Pollock starting at openside ahead of the injured Willie Faloon.
Edinburgh make only two changes from their winning combination against Cardiff, with Phil Godman replacing sensational rookie out-half Rory Lawson, while Allan MacDonald takes advantage of Ross Rennie's persistent knee complaint.
"We want to have a chance of beating Stade on our own patch," said coach Rob Moffat. "The ball is in our court, but then Ulster will say that too. That's why it will be a cracking match."
Although Rennie joins Simon Cross, Ally Hogg and David Callum as absentees in the crucial back-row area, Moffat is confident his Scott Newlands/ MacDonald/Roddy Grant trio (albeit the last named only made his debut at No 8 last weekend) can compete.
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin is also upbeat. "When you're playing Edinburgh you have to realise how competitive they are, they're very aggressive around the breakdown," he said. "Their defence is strong and to beat them you have to be patient, you have to really hold on to the ball.
"Obviously the crowd at Ravenhill have been fantastic all season for us, in our last game against Munster they roared us on in the last 20 minutes to a really hard-fought victory."
Should they do so again, Ulster may perhaps dare to dream an impossible dream. Reality, however, dictates that they merely concentrate on what they can control -- the victory, which should prove within their grasp.
Ulster -- J Smith; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, 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, N O'Connor, T Nagusa.
Edinburgh -- C Paterson (capt); J Thompson, B Cairns, J Houston, T Visse; P Godman, G Laidlaw; A Jacobsen, R Ford, D Young, S MacLeod, J Hamilton, S Newlands, A MacDonald, R Grant. Reps: A Kelly, K Traynor, G Cross, C Hamilton, D Callam, R Samson, N De Luca, M Robertson.
Ref -- Christophe Berdos (France).
Ulster v Edinburgh,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 8.0