Monday 23 April 2018

Cave insists Ulster have belief to storm fallen fortress Welford Road

Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

ULSTER have rolled past some significant milestones in each of the last few seasons.

The historic first win on English soil against Bath in the 2009/10 campaign was followed up by last season's qualification for the knockout stages for the first time since they won the Heineken Cup in 1999, and to take something from Welford Road today would be another step forward for Brian McLaughlin and his team.

That Leicester have yet to win at home in the Premiership -- they have managed just one draw from four outings -- suggests Fortress Welford could be penetrated, but the Tigers' poor home form is offset by the absence of both Paddy Wallace and new signing John Afoa from the Ulster squad.

Wallace damaged the tendons in his left thumb and had surgery that will keep him out of action until the third round of matches in this competition in January, while Afoa, who had settled into the side seamlessly since his arrival in Ireland just before the Pro 12 win over Connacht, has returned to New Zealand to act as best man for fellow All Black Jerome Kaino in a pre-arranged agreement.

Those changes mean that Declan Fitzpatrick starts in the front-row alongside Tom Court and Rory Best, while Nevin Spence comes into Wallace's No 12 jersey to partner Darren Cave.

These are an important few months for Cave from an international standpoint. Many of the other options available to Declan Kidney can play in either of the midfield positions but Cave (right), who has national honours at every level from schools to 'A' grade, as well as two full senior caps, is one of the few specialist outside-centres around.

He performed well against the Clermont midfield of Aurelien Rougerie and Regan King last weekend, and a similar performance away from the comforts of Ravenhill, where Ulster have won their last nine Heineken Cup matches, could see him force his way into the reckoning for Ireland's Six Nations squad early next year.

It's also a big game for Ian Humphreys, who returns to his former club. On another weekend, the out-half's performance against Clermont would have been the talk of the round.

As it was, Jonathan Sexton and Ronan O'Gara stole the headlines, but Humphreys will have to come out on top in his head-to-head battle with Toby Flood if Ulster are to spring a surprise.

These sides were last drawn in the same pool for 2004, with both teams enjoying emphatic wins on home soil, though Cave believes that will be less of a factor this time around.

"I think for us it's about finding the balance between respecting the history of Welford Road while, at the same time, realising that they've been beaten there more than once this season.

"So while they are one of the greats of European rugby and it's a very hard place to win, there's no reason why we can't go there and beat them because others have done that this year.

"I wasn't there in 2004, but I've watched it plenty of times on television and it looks like a serious, serious crowd. I watched the Toulouse-Gloucester game last weekend and that's something that Gloucester did really well: they didn't try to do anything too fancy but just slowed down Toulouse, and the crowd. I think that's something we'll try to do too."

Tigers head coach Richard Cockerill has already described this as a "must win" game for his side and while he has selected a strong side, he has also kept something in reserve.

They are skippered by Geordan Murphy, who equals Martin Corry's club record of 69 appearances in the Heineken Cup, but it is Leicester's replacements that could swing the tie in their favour.

Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni is on the bench alongside returning England scrum-half Ben Youngs, while they can also call on the experience of Jeremy Staunton. Ulster's bench includes Paddy Jackson and Adam Macklin, who are promising academy players but would be making their European debut in very difficult surroundings if called upon.

It's another major test for the Belfast men, and while a win in Leicester might be asking too much in the absence of a fully fit squad, a losing bonus point in one of the citadels of European rugby would be another example of the progress being made up north.

Verdict: Leicester Tigers

ULSTER -- S Danielli; A Trimble, D Cave, N Spence, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller (capt), D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg Reps: N Brady, P McAllister, A Macklin, L Stevenson, W Faloon, I Porter, P Jackson, A D'Arcy.

LEICESTER TIGERS -- G Murphy; H Agulla, M Smith, A Forsyth, A Tuilagi; T Flood, S Harrison; M Ayezra, G Chuter, D Cole; L Deacon, G Parling; T Croft, J Salvi, T Waldrom. Reps: B Stankovich, M Castrogiovanni, G Skivington, S Mafi, B Youngs, J Staunton, N Morris.

REF -- Romaine Poite (France)

Leicester Tigers v Ulster, Live, Sky Sports 1, 6.0

Irish Independent

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