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Hugh Farrelly: Cave ready to ensure home rule for Ulster

IT is a day set up for riotous Ulster celebration, an explosion of provincial pride daubed in red and white from a group of supporters whose passions have gone largely unfulfilled for 13 years.

A tough environment for Michael Bradley to lead his Edinburgh side into, particularly in light of their lowly Pro12 position and the two thumpings his men received from Ulster in that competition. However, Edinburgh have their own pride to tap into, relying on a predominantly home-grown squad who have become standard-bearers for Scotland rugby followers weary from years of disappointment and failure.

For while Edinburgh have been bumbling Bruce Banners in the league, they transform into Incredible Hulks in Europe. They may go into this Heineken Cup semi-final written off across the board but there are a couple of encouraging portents for Bradley to cling to.

Starting in Auckland. At first glance, Ireland's World Cup win over the Wallabies last October may seem to carry little relevance to today's encounter -- bar the presence of Rory Best and Stephen Ferris in the Ulster side -- but closer examination throws up some significant pointers.

Australia, like Ulster this evening, went into that match as heavy favourites but without trusted performers in key areas. Hooker Stephen Moore was their scrummaging fulcrum and his absence allowed Ireland to gain a critical edge there while, with no David Pocock on the flank, the Irish back-row was able to establish a dominant presence at the breakdown.

Ulster enter today's contest without their suspended scrum supremo John Afoa and the injured Chris Henry, the converted No 8 who has been sensational at openside all season.

Furthermore, Ireland profited from getting after Wallabies playmaker Quade Cooper in Auckland that night and there is no doubt Bradley will instruct his men to rattle Paddy Jackson in similar fashion.

Ulster's rookie 10 is a hugely promising player and a bold selection by Brian McLaughlin ahead of Ian Humphreys but this is an enormous challenge for the 20-year-old and he is fortunate to have the vast experience of Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Wallace either side of him to take the pressure off.

Nonetheless, there are opportunities there for the Edinburgh scrum and an extremely accomplished back-row of David Denton, Ross Rennie and Netani Talei to exploit and this game will provide a clear indication of the mettle of Jackson, prop Declan Fitzpatrick and flanker Willie Faloon.

While there are few marquee names in the Edinburgh line-up, there is a settled look to Bradley's selection and the second positive portent after Auckland comes in the statistical performances of the respective teams in this season's competition. One cannot read too much into these things but the Amlin Opta Index, which awards points to players and teams based on their performances in key areas, makes for fascinating reading.

Edinburgh are rated the most effective side of all the Heineken Cup sides (on 25,325 points with Leinster second on 24,692) and are comfortably ahead of Ulster in their defence, attack and kicking games, narrowly in front at scrum time and only behind when it comes to line-out efficiency.

According to this index, Talei is the highest-rated player in Europe on 397 points, a full 155 ahead of Ulster's best performer, Ferris, although the Irish province do possess the two best lineout performers in Johann Muller (542) and Best (485) ahead of Saracens' Steve Borthwick on 474.

How much these stats count for in the heat of battle today remains to be seen but it is certainly something Bradley can highlight as a significant positive in intimidating circumstances.

Ulster centre Darren Cave has chosen to assess Edinburgh purely on their European form and is expecting a different challenge to the one they overcame in the quarter-final at Thomond Park.

"Edinburgh play a very different style to Munster but one of the strengths of our team is that we can play different ways," said Cave.

"If you look back to that Munster game we got 19 points quickly and then held on for dear life. We showed that day that we're very good defensively so if we can put that together with a good attacking performance we're going to be hard to beat.

"Edinburgh have shipped a lot of tries in the league but they haven't in Europe," added Cave. "We've prepared for the Edinburgh team that beat Toulouse -- and that was impressive. But we know we can beat them so we're just looking forward to it."

There will be much for Cave and his team-mates to savour, with a near packed house of around 45,000 set to sway largely to the Ulster beat and overpower Edinburgh's travelling contingent.

And the occasion could have a key role in getting Ulster over the line, just as Edinburgh's unprecedented support of 38,000 helped them home against Toulouse in their quarter-final at Murrayfield.

Tactically, expect Ulster to try and dominate through their bulkier forwards to allow Pienaar dictate matters from scrum-half, while Edinburgh will be banking on a consistent supply of quick possession which they will use to try and spread Ulster and find gaps out wide, where Tim Visser is a major scoring threat.

Romain Poite's interpretation at scrum time and at the breakdown will be crucial and it is essential that Faloon measures up to the streetwise Rennie when the ball goes to deck.

Overall, there is enough danger in Edinburgh's ranks to make this far closer than many expect but, driven by their South African core and the home-grown savvy of the likes of Best, Ferris and Wallace, Ulster have the capacity to see them off, with Humphreys and Paul Marshall ready to make positive impacts from the bench.

Leinster versus Clermont may demand top billing this weekend but this is set up to be just as compelling a contest and Ulster, if they keep their wits about them, have enough to de-Hulk Edinburgh's cartoon European adventure.

Verdict: Ulster

Irish Independent