A mountain to climb but this is exactly where Ulster want to be
The task for Brian McLaughlin and his men has got a whole lot harder, writes Brendan Fanning
T owards the end of Northampton's run of five defeats from six in the Premiership this year, the scale of Ulster's climb today began to look a whole lot more appealing. In cycling terms, it was like going from a Category 1 climb back to Category 3. So from a back-breaker to something that would be difficult but do-able.
The line was that the Saints had been found out. And with their primary route forward being consistently blocked, they hadn't figured out an alternative.
The only problem with this theory was that there has never been much of a mystery to how they play. As their No 8 Roger Wilson put it in these pages before they hit the hump at the end of January: "A lot of it's just about breaking down defences through high work-rate and big collisions to create that space. We do repeat a lot of the basic core stuff over and over again in training."
The theory of discovery would stand or fall when Saints got their England contingent back, a group -- along with the injured Courtney Lawes -- they were missing during that run of defeats. Sure enough, when the Fodens and Ashtons came back behind the scrum, allied to the Hartleys and Woods up front, Northampton started to look more like the team that had dominated the Premiership before the international window opened.
And over the last three weeks, as Saints strung together three wins to sort out their place in the top four, Ulster's incline increased. We're more in the Alpe d'Huez category again.
It's worth explaining the background to Northampton's slump. This season the club found themselves in the unusual position of seeing a huge jump in salary for a few players who had suddenly become England stars. So with the restriction of the salary cap, they weren't in a position to build the sort of squad that could cope with losing the rump of the team in the Six Nations. When the lads went off to Martin Johnson it was inevitable that those taking their places were operating at a much lower level.
It would be like Ulster without the Afrikaans element: they could plug the holes but not with the same quality. It's good for the tournament then that the heavyweights from both sides -- bar Joe Ansbro -- are all on duty today. Maybe not so good for the game as a spectacle though. If you accept that Saints like to outwork and outmuscle their opponents, and Ulster sometimes look like they invented 'one out' rugby, then in the Milton Keynes sunshine we could be looking at something more suited to a muddy field in mid-winter.
Maybe Ulster will at last deliver the kind of performance they are looking for. The most common quote from Brian McLaughlin or his senior players this season has been that they have been happy with the result if not the way it was secured. Is today the day?
"I hope so," says Neil Doak, McLaughlin's assistant. "Obviously from Magners League to European quarter-final there's going to be a big difference in the intensity and the physical side of the game is going to be something we've got to live with. And Northampton are one of those sides that if they get momentum they could blow you away. We've got to make sure we nullify that.
"It would be pretty good (the quality of Ulster's best game). The boys will know that at times we've created some great opportunities and for whatever reason we've left them on the table. Sometimes we're not identifying one more pass will get you to the edge of a defence and that will create a four v one. Maybe because we haven't sort of clicked consistently through a game, like last week we defended for 10 phases one time and got the ball inside our 22. As Simon (Danielli) alluded to with Chris Ashton, he worked off his wing, picked the ball up, made a bust and then we linked up and Ian (Humphreys) scored behind the posts.
"At times we can play some very, very good rugby and for me it's just about consistently doing that and consistently having that mindset that if we play with tempo and with accuracy then we'll put teams under pressure. Especially on the European Cup stage at the back-end of seasons, it's about making sure that when you do have those opportunities, and play at that tempo, you have to take them. We've Northampton this week, Leinster next week; and if we're fortunate enough to qualify for the Magners League semis, you're playing against quality sides."
In which case Ulster will need to produce their best form of the season and in an environment they know nothing about.
The last rugby match at stadium:mk was back in 2008 when Saracens took a club fixture there. There is a touch of the bear pit about it -- well, potentially -- with a sunken pitch creating an oppressive atmosphere.
"It is a brilliant stadium," says Jim Mallinder, the Saints coach. "You are actually (playing) down below ground level -- fantastic stadium with the acoustics. The atmosphere will be fairly special."
Interestingly, Neil Doak didn't sound like he had researched too deeply into the venue at all, and dismissed it on the basis that it will be just another pitch-share with football, like Cardiff or Swansea.
So he won't know how deep the in-goal areas will be -- they will be a whole lot shallower than Ravenhill -- or indeed how wide a track they will face. It seems it will be just a metre narrower than Franklin's Gardens which is one of the broadest surfaces in the Premiership.
This poses an interesting dilemma for Ulster. They have picked a pack for trench warfare and a backline made up of special forces who will be looking to get into the wide channels and stretch their legs. Certainly with Ian Humphreys at 10 Ulster will play with width. The problem is that one of the strongest areas of the Saints game is the ability to turn teams over on the wide outside. And then counter. They may put a lot of store in bashing people but it's not all route-one stuff, and some of their wide play against Sale last week was very good.
"Don't think it is any surprise that now that the pitches are hardening up -- strange you might think with our big pack that (wet and heavy conditions) would suit us, but we have proved that we like a nice dry, flat surface and a pitch with lots of width," Mallinder says.
First though they will look to shut down Ruan Pienaar and Humphreys. The plan for the Springbok is simple.
"Yes, be out of touch with 10 minutes to go!" Mallinder says. "No, we know that he is a quality player, I didn't know much about him to be honest until I saw him playing for Ulster but with him and Humphreys they have some quality half-backs there. We've known about his ability to be cool and calm under pressure and he is not just a goal kicker, he is a very good number nine. He kicks well -- tactically as well at the posts -- and he runs the game for them.
"They are second in the Magners, they have done well in the last six games in that competition, and they have come through a Pool with Bath and Biarritz in it so we will not underestimate them -- we have inside knowledge from Roger Wilson and we know their mindset. They will be delighted they have got through. They will have the belief that they can go on and win it."
We'll see about that. But this is where they had spoken about being when late last summer McLaughlin and Doak looked at the season ahead.
"To get to certain stages of competitions you need a bit of luck and you also need some good players and good performances throughout the season," says Doak. "I think this is one of the goals that we sat down and identified: let's get out of the group stages.
"It's been long enough. We've been tinkering on the edge -- we've had a couple of seasons where we've missed out by a couple of tries or missed out by a bonus point. You've got to try and accumulate those points through your group stages and, fortunately for us, we've qualified this year and we've got to try and make the most of it. I don't want to wait another 12 years to get the opportunity again."
At least that should focus their minds.
Northampton Saints: B Foden; C Ashton, J Clarke, J Downey, P Diggin; S Myler, L Dickson; S Tonga'uiha, D Hartley (c), B Mujati, C Lawes, C Day, P Dowson, R Wilson, T Wood. Reps: B Sharman, A Waller, T Mercey, M Sorenson C Clark, S Commins, S Geraghty, B Reihana
Ulster: A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best (c), BJ Botha, J Muller, D Tuohy, R Diack, P Wannenburg, C Henry. Reps: A Kyriacou, P McAllister, B Young, T Barker, W Faloon, P Marshall, I Whitten, C Gilroy
Referee: R Poite (Fra)
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