Saturday 16 December 2017

McLaughlin confident Ulster can upset 'predictable' Saints

Hugh Farrelly

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin believes Northampton can be "predictable" and has backed his men to triumph if they play to their potential in Sunday's Heineken Cup quarter-final in Milton Keynes.

However, McLaughlin, who yesterday earned glowing praise from Ulster's 1999 Heineken Cup-winning coach Harry Williams, acknowledged that the English Premiership side have earned their favourites tag and said the set-piece battle will be critical to the outcome.

"Northampton is a great challenge," said McLaughlin. "They've had a quality season and are ranked No 1 in Europe from the group stages and they're flying high in the Premiership. They're a quality side. We know it's going to be tough but if we're on our game we'll come out on top.

"Their set-piece is particularly good; they have a very good scrum and line-out. Around the field we feel they can be a little bit predictable sometimes, but when you have a back three like they have and a quality midfield who can carry exceptionally well and a very strong line-out, there's no doubt they're a quality team."

After a difficult mid-season period when Jim Mallinder's side lost five league matches on the trot, the Saints have hit form and go into the quarter-final on the back of a 39-3 triumph over Wasps and a 53-24 win over Sale.

"They're very, very effective. If they can get momentum from the set-piece they like to maul a lot and if they get good go-forward they're a very difficult team to stop," added McLaughlin.

"We're playing the top-ranked side in Europe. We're in the top eight, we're delighted to be there, but we want to show that we deserve to be there, so the boys know that they have to up their ante."

McLaughlin is the first Ulster coach to bring the province to the Heineken Cup knock-out stages in 12 years, succeeding where Alan Solomons, Mark McCall and Matt Williams all failed, and Harry Williams believes the province have the right man to emulate his own 1999 achievement.

"Brian has done a fantastic job with Ulster," he said. "The key is that he understands the Ulster psyche.

"To me there is no one in the world like an Ulsterman, and he has a knowledge of how to make them work.

"The South African guys have come in and do what they do, but Brian has got the Ulster guys going and the squad seems to be like a big family at the moment.

"Ruan Pienaar gets better and better, Ian Humphreys is in form and Nevin Spence excites me, and don't forget Andrew Trimble, who is a dangerous winger.

"None of our players have been in this situation before, but that was the case in 1999 and we handled it then. Brian's team can do the same."

Ulster's South African contingent of Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg have begun to make good on the province's investment and McLaughlin said their commitment to the cause is a major factor in the side's progress this season.

"We've a great team spirit, we've developed a super culture and certainly we're able to grind out more results now -- we feel that on the pitch our mentality is that we're going out to win," he said.

"Yes, our results have been exceptionally tight and we may not have been at our best but we've classed them all as cup games and we feel that's got to be the attitude.

"We're going over there with the confidence and knowledge that away from home this season we've been very successful."

Irish Independent

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