Cave predicts 'trouble' for weakened Montpellier as Ulster target early bonus
FOR Ulster, the trick is keeping their eye on the ball and forgetting that next week exists.
Out of the running for the quarter-finals and in terrible form domestically, tonight's opponents Montpellier have thrown in the towel and sent over a second-string side.
Just two players survive from last weekend's defeat to Brive as Fabien Galthie gives his front-liners a rest en masse. Nicolas Mas, Francois Trinh-Duc, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Mamuka Gorgodze are all left behind as the reserves are sent for slaughter at Ravenhill.
If Ulster show up, this will be a gimme. Tommy Bowe is still sidelined, but the return of Rory Best and captain Johann Muller means Mark Anscombe is as close as he has been to full strength in quite some time and it is a formidable line-up he has assembled, a week before the pool decider in Leicester.
Scoring four tries and scoring them early is the mission. Anscombe will want to whisk the returning Best, Muller, Chris Henry and Nick Williams off early ahead of the step up in intensity and class that awaits against the Tigers next Saturday.
Given the resources available to Montpellier, these won't be poor players but they are nowhere near the class of Ulster, who can field 12 full internationals in their starting line-up, plus four on the bench.
Their visitors, in contrast, have named a team with just four internationals. Their half-backs, Enzo Selponi and Eric Escande, are 20 and 21 respectively and while both are France U-20 internationals, they will be targeted like never before by the hard-running, big-tackling Ulster back-row of Robbie Diack, Henry and Williams.
If Ulster -- who yesterday confirmed that Stephen Ferris will be given more time to recover from his injury woes with a new short-term deal, while also handing tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick a two-year extension with the IRFU -- are focused, they can make life easy for themselves next weekend.
Leicester are likely to pick up a bonus in Treviso, so a maximum return should mean that a losing bonus would do Ulster at Welford Road next week.
Against Munster last Friday, the Ulster backs began to really click, with Ruan Pienaar and Jared Payne bolstering the local effort led by Luke Marshall and Darren Cave (pictured) in the centre.
Andrew Trimble looked like he was thoroughly enjoying himself and ahead of the night when he becomes the province's most-capped European player, the Ireland wing believes things are coming together behind the scrum.
"I think our backline is looking really sharp. When we get parity up front, which we usually do, that puts us in a great position where we can strike and get gainlines and get forwards round the corner," he said.
"We know that if we produce a big performance we're well capable of beating a big side like this and beating them well. That's definitely what we're looking to do.
"For me, I'm just looking at keeping this run going, getting out there and performing well."
Cave, who has been backing up his talk of frustration at his Ireland omission with some big displays, can empathise with this Montpellier side from the days when Ulster were less competitive than they are now.
"I know what it's like to be going away to face a team that you know, in your heart of hearts, is better than you. I know what it's like to be going to a fortress," he said.
"I remember how I used to approach it in my first season with Ulster when we were going to play the high-flying Ospreys. I remember thinking, 'We can start well, get amongst them and disrupt them'. But if the opposition started well you began to worry and the seeds of doubt began to grow.
"We know now that teams coming to Ravenhill of course think that they can win the game if they can disrupt us, but they also know that if we start well and get our stuff right, they're going to be in trouble."
Ulster's job is to create that doubt, and starting well is key. Superior in every area, they should be well on their way to that bonus point at half-time.
Everyone knows that Welford Road at 6.0 next Saturday is the place to be, but Ulster need to arrive in the best fettle they possibly can by winning here and winning well.
ULSTER -- J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams. Reps: R Herring, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, I Henderson, R Wilson, S Doyle, P Marshall, M Allen.
MONTPELLIER -- A Floch; Y Artru, A Tuitavke, T Combezou, L Dupont; E Selponi, E Escande; N Leleimalefaga, C Geli (capt), M Bustos; M Demarco, RT Watchou; K Galletier, A Bias, J Beattie. Reps: T Bianchin, M Nariashvili, P Fa'anunu, M Ivaldi, F Quercy, B Paillaugue, P Berard, T Nagusa.
REF -- W Barnes (RFU)
ULSTER V MONTPELLIER,
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