Monday 18 December 2017

McLaughlin talks up bullish Ulster

Hugh Farrelly

THE South African influence at Ulster has been much lauded and has been a significant factor in the province's unbeaten start to the season -- even if team performances haven't quite matched results.

However, Ulster's gain is Ireland's pain, particularly when it comes to the back row. Stephen Ferris returns from injury for tomorrow's daunting Heineken Cup challenge in the Parc des Sports Aguilera in Biarritz (3.0), but the presence of South Africans Pedrie Wannenburg and Robbie Diack means Ireland's best blindside flanker is being asked to play on the open-side flank.

He has played there many times before, but Ferris' career only ignited when he moved into the No 6 jersey and, not only is he playing out of position a few weeks before Wanneburg's countrymen rock up to Lansdowne Road, the Afrikaner influence means no room for Chris Henry or Willie Faloon.

Henry showcased his considerable abilities at No 8 on the summer tour, but drops to the bench for this clash while Faloon (a serious prospect at open-side, where Ireland are not overburdened with options) cannot even make the match-day squad.

Ferris is one of four changes to the side that accounted for Aironi in round one. Injuries to full-back Jamie Smith and centre Darren Cave mean starts for David McIlwaine and Ian Whitten, while another South African, BJ Botha, is back to take his place at tight-head prop with Tom Court moving to loose-head.

They go up against a Biarritz side brimful of ability and muscle, typified by skipper Jerome Thion who returns to the second row.

They boast an enormous front five and the peerless Imanol Harinordoquy in the back row, while their outside backs ooze pace, typified by the electric American Takudzwa Ngwenya on the right wing.

However, the key men for the home team are half-backs Dimitri Yachvili and Julien Peyrelongue, canny operators who know how to run a game.

Yachvili goes up against another goal-kicking, footballing No 9 in Ulster's Ruan Pienaar and if ever the Springbok was to justify his salary, this is the occasion. Ulster, despite a horrendous record in France, go into the clash in bullish form, with genuine belief that they can end the hoodoo.

"I believe we now have a pack to match anything that Biarritz can throw at us," said coach Brian McLaughlin.

"Our strong and physical back row will send out a message that we mean business. We may be travelling as underdogs, with Biarritz, apparently, hot favourites to top the pool, but we just may have something to say about that.

"Ulster have a dreadful record in France, a draw against Toulouse was our best result many moons ago, so it is time to put that right. This just might be the time."

An Ulster victory would be a fantastic result and open up a path to their first quarter-final in more than 10 years, but last season's beaten finalists are not about to be willing accomplices in their visitors' Bokke to the future grand plan.

It all points to a home victory, with a losing bonus point representing a worthwhile achievement for Ulster.

Verdict: Biarritz

BIARRITZ -- D Haylett-Petty; T Ngwenya, C Gimenez, M Bond, I Balshaw; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; E Coetzee, B August, C Johnstone; J Thion (capt), E Lund; M Lund, I Harinordoquy, R Lakafia. Reps: R Terrain, S Marconnet, A Barozzi, M Carizza, B Guyot, D Traille, A Mignardi, I Bolakoro,

ULSTER -- D McIlwaine; A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best (capt), BJ Botha; T Barker; J Muller; P Wannenburg, S Ferris, R Diack. Reps: A Kyriacou, B Young, P McAllister, D Tuohy, C Henry, P Marshall, A D'Arcy, N Spence.

REF -- D Pearson (England).

Biarritz v Ulster,

Live, tomorrow, Sky Sports, Red Button

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