Ulster's last men standing must win big and cross their fingers
Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30
It's been a good week for Ulster who basked in the reflective glory and goodwill from Rory Best's appointment as Ireland's captain.
The news came at a good time for director of rugby Les Kiss who needs a performance from his team after their humbling trip to north London last weekend.
The Australian's selection strategy may ultimately cost his side their place in the last eight after he rested players for the visit to Oyonnax two weeks ago and couldn't secure the bonus point, before the first-choice XV found the going too tough against Saracens last weekend.
Their failure to pick up an additional point in either game leaves their quarter-final chances hanging by a thread.
Ahead of the weekend's games, they are the fifth-ranked second-placed team and need a couple of results to go their way to qualify for the last eight.
Still, unlike their rivals to the south, Ulster have a chance and all they can do this lunchtime is to put as much pressure on their competition as possible by scoring four or more tries and enhancing their points difference as much as they can.
Ulster can draw comfort from the team-sheets of those they need favours from, with Leinster, Leicester, Scarlets and Exeter Chiefs naming strong sides.
Up first, they have a chance to give everyone else a target to chase and apply whatever pressure they can.
Their chances are blunted by the absence through illness of Ruan Pienaar who gives them such presence at scrum-half.
The Springbok is replaced by Paul Marshall who will have a point to prove after being hauled ashore in France two weeks ago and he has Paddy Jackson outside him to help guide him through.
This is a chance for the Ireland out-half to show that he doesn't overly rely on his regular half-back partner during games and he has plenty of talent outside him if he can get good ball.
Ireland's new captain has been given a rest after experiencing a tight back this week, so his fellow national squad member Rob Herring is included with Best on the bench.
There will be concerns about Ulster's scrum in the absence of foot victim Wiehahn Herbst. Oyonnax had a huge amount of joy against Ricky Lutton last time out, but Alan O'Connor's presence in the second-row should help solidify the set-piece.
The Skerries second-row and local boy Kyle McCall have been the finds of the season for Kiss and both will look to have an influence in the loose.
The hosts will also be lifted by the return of their barnstorming No 8 Nick Williams whose battle with the man he replaced, Pedrie Wannenburg, will be worth watching,
The French side could be forgiven for having an eye on their next three games after beating Toulouse at home last weekend.
Second from bottom in the Top 14, they face Racing 92, Toulon and Clermont Auvergne in successive weeks and so Johann Authier has chosen to make 14 changes to his side for their trip to Belfast.
Not known for big results away from home, the French side will draw heart from their performances on their own pitch in the last two weeks and will surely have a point to prove after letting a 23-0 half-time lead slip against Ulster.
But the hosts - who yesterday confirmed the signing of Irish-qualified former England U-20 lock Kieran Treadwell on a two-year deal from Harlequins - should have more than enough class to see them through.
With Stuart McCloskey given a rare weekend off after 16 games in a row, in comes Darren Cave who partners Luke Marshall in the centre.
The all-Ireland back three contains Jared Payne who remains at full-back and wing threats Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble.
McCloskey's absence will mean a change of emphasis with ball in hand given Cave's different skill-set, but Ulster's attacking game is strong and Jackson will look to get the ball wide often. The key is a strong start up front and the scrum and the breakdown will be vital.
If they can get front-foot ball early on, then Ulster can get the points they need to give themselves a chance of going where no other Irish team can go this season.
Only then will the waiting and worrying begin for Kiss and his men who face a nerve-wracking 36 hours.
ULSTER - J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; K McCall, R Herring, R Lutton; A O'Connor, F van der Merwe; R Diack, S Reidy, N Williams. Reps: R Best, C Black, B Ross, C Ross, R Wilson, D Shanahan, I Humphreys, R Scholes.
OYONNAX - F Denos; D Ikpefan, G Bousses, A Taufa, D Codjo; R Clegg, J Blanc; S Tonga'uiha, T Bordes, G Vepkvadze; L Power, G Fabbri; V Ursache, P Gunther, P Wannenburg. Reps: J Maurouard, L Delboulbes, H Pungea, F Metz, M Fa'asavalu, F Cibray, R Lespinas, E Sheridan.
Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)
Ulster v Oyonnax,
Live, Sky Sports 5, 1.0