Sunday 18 February 2018

McLaughlin's troops eyeing maximum haul from crunch Aironi clashes

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

ULSTER's objective from the next eight days is clear: collect 10 points.

Their season depends on getting the maximum out of tonight's visit of Aironi to Ravenhill and the return trip to Viadana next Saturday.

A stuttering start to the Pro12 has eroded their hopes of a play-off place, and after reaching last year's European quarter-final and investing heavily in the squad, anything less than a repeat will be seen as a significant backwards step.

Failure to beat Aironi in either game would be a disaster for Brian McLaughlin's men, but the bonus points are the key to progression. If they don't score at least four tries in each game, then the 1999 winners will face an uphill battle to qualify.

Such is life in Pool 4, where the presence of Aironi makes things that little bit more clear-cut. The top two should qualify, but when three heavyweights are going for those two spots, you have to be clinical against the one weak team.

Much depends on the outcome of the Leicester v Clermont double-header. Two defeats for the French team would pretty much end their interest in the competition and would mean that Ulster would have a better chance of winning at the Stade Marcel Michelin in January.

One of the shining domestic lights of the campaign so far, scrum-half Paul Marshall, loses out tonight to the returning Springbok Ruan Pienaar, while Tom Court makes way for Paddy McAllister in the front-row. New signing Stefan Terblanche starts on the bench.

Nine of the team that starts tonight played at the Stadio Zaffanella in September when Ulster eked out a 25-19 win -- World Cup stars Rory Best, John Afoa, Johann Muller and Stephen Ferris bring extra class to the line-up.

That said, the Italians' tight five is packed with Azzurri quality, and All Black Afoa will need to have shaken off any lingering hangover from his recent trip home to cope with the might of 83-cap Salvatore Perugini, who lines up alongside 80-cap hooker Fabio Ongaro and uncapped Lorenzo Romano in the front-row.

Ulster will require patience, but they have more than enough quality. The problem for them this season has been showing that, but tonight it is time to stand up.

Verdict: Ulster

Irish Independent

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