Ulster put trust in Spence to sink Bath
ULSTER are looking for a return on investment when they take on Bath in their Heineken Cup Pool Four clash in Ravenhill today (1.30).
Coach Brian McLaughlin has picked four Springboks in a team led by Johann Muller in the second row and there is a huge onus on Muller, scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, prop BJ Botha and back-row Pedrie Wannenburg.
Irish internationals Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace, Tom Court and Stephen Ferris are all included after their November outings at Lansdowne Road and, with Darren Cave unavailable through injury, McLaughlin hands a first Heineken Cup start to 20-year-old Ballynahinch speed merchant Nevin Spence at outside centre.
It is a massive opportunity for Spence, who played seven minutes off the bench in the October pool clash with Biarritz, and McLaughlin believes he is ready to step up to this level from the start.
"Nevin has done well for us this season and while it may surprise a few people, I believe he is up to the job," said McLaughlin.
In the pack, after a tricky start to the season when he battled fitness and form, Dan Tuohy gets the chance to build on the favourable impression he gave on Ireland's summer tour but No 8 Chris Henry, another Ulsterman who impressed on that trip, is once again moved away from his most effective position and placed on the open-side flank.
The Heineken Cup is the competition that best prepares Irish players for international rugby and, from an Irish point of view, it would have been encouraging to see an Ulster back row of Ferris at six, Willie Faloon at seven and Henry at eight. However, the desire to accommodate Wannenburg means Faloon is relegated to the bench, in spite of his excellent form in November.
Bath arrive at Ravenhill under a cloak of uncertainty following a string of poor results. Since beating Aironi in their last European assignment in October, Bath have managed a single victory from six outings (against Cardiff Blues in the Anglo-Welsh Cup) and, if Ulster and their Springboks find the necessary drive and form, Bath are there for the taking.
The visitors have an all-England international front row and an excellent scrum-half in their South African captain Michael Claassens, while they will also be looking to their England midfield duo of Matt Banahan and Shontayne Hape.
The 6' 7" Banahan will huff and puff and wave his tattoos around but his sheer size can do damage while their Anglocised Kiwi Hape will display the physicality and off-loading skills he picked up in rugby league -- Spence and Wallace will need to make their tackles.
Lose this afternoon and Ulster, who have not qualified for the knockout stages since 1999, are almost certainly consigned to another pool exit. Their last Heineken Cup outing produced a disappointing display and a comprehensive defeat in Biarritz -- a day when their South African contingent failed to play up to the required level -- and a repeat of that display will be unacceptable this afternoon.
McLaughlin seems to have adopted a no-tolerance policy for this encounter and knows full well the consequences of failure.
"If we want to go further in the competition, we need to win," said McLaughlin. "It's as simple as that."
ULSTER -- A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar: T Court, N Brady, BJ Botha; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg. Reps: A Kyriacou, P McAllister, B Young, T Barker, W Faloon, P Marshall, I Whitten, D McIlwaine.
BATH -- J Cuthbert; M Carraro, M Banahan, S Hape, T Biggs; S Vesty, M Claassens (capt); D Flatman, L Mears, D Wilson; S Hooper, D Grewcock; A Beattie, L Moody, S Taylor. Reps: P Dixon, D Barnes, D Bell, IF Lobbe, B Skirving, M McMillan, O Barkley, N Abendanon.
REF -- J Garces (France).
Ulster v Bath,
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