Sunday 8 December 2019

Ulster aim to avoid French drama by scalping Warriors

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

ULSTER players got a bit of respite last weekend as the majority were present for scrum-half Paul Marshall's wedding on Saturday, but it was back to business yesterday as they began preparations for Friday night's penultimate Heineken Cup pool game.

Five is the magic number for the Pool 4 leaders at Ravenhill, but they must be mindful of a Glasgow side with nothing to lose.

The northern province stand on the brink of reaching the last eight of the Heineken Cup for the third season in succession, but their home defeat to Northampton in round four has made life a little more uncomfortable.

Instead of cruising towards a home quarter-final, Mark Anscombe's men are looking over their shoulders at Castres and Northampton and face a tricky task to ensure their place.

Having never won a competitive match in France, the 1999 champions don't want to have to go to Castres next weekend needing a result. A bonus-point win over the Warriors would give them the breathing space necessary to get through on the comfort of a losing bonus.

It will be easier said than done against the Scots who have emerged from nowhere to take second place in the Pro12 standings after a run of three wins on the bounce.

Rugby has taken a hammering in Scotland in recent months, with neither club having won a game in Europe this season. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow are out, but this is a Warriors team that have consistently been able to produce one-off results at this level without ever making an overall impact on the tournament.

Over the past five years, Glasgow have claimed the scalps of Toulouse, Gloucester, Wasps, Montpellier and Bath despite not reaching the quarter-finals. Often they were already out when they produced the results, seemingly from nowhere.

Ulster remain 1/14 favourites to top the pool but having taken their eye off the ball against a ferocious Northampton backlash at home, they could do without repeating the same this weekend.

Certainly their second-row appears to be depowered after Dan Tuohy's calf injury recurred against the Scarlets on Friday night and Iain Henderson will need a big game if deployed alongside Lewis Stevenson.

Luke Marshall is also struggling as well as New Zealander Jared Payne as the injuries mount for Anscombe, who is already without a host of front-liners.

Although their interest in this year's competition is over, Glasgow have won three games on the bounce. They overcame Edinburgh twice in the Christmas week games, before hammering Treviso last weekend.

"We're on a good run at the moment, three wins in a row and that's something we can build on and take a lot of positives from," Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend said, and the former Lions fly-half won't want his side to stop.

With their pool rivals Northampton and Castres meeting at the same time on Friday night, Ulster's task will be clearer come Saturday morning, but given the French side are a formidable outfit at their intimidating home ground regardless, the northerners will be keen to put this to bed.

That Ravenhill win seems to have revitalised the Saints, who overcame Leinster's pool rivals Exeter at Sandy Park at the weekend and their coach Jim Mallinder is refusing to give up the ghost, despite trailing Ulster by five points going into the final two rounds.

"The win away to Ulster has put us back on track but it is going to be difficult in the Heineken Cup, but it has given us something to play for. What we need to do is focus on our home form," he said ahead of their vital clash with the French side.

Ulster's destiny remains in their own hands, but there are major pitfalls along the way.

They made life harder for themselves by losing at home last time out. A return to winning ways at Ravenhill – with four tries to boot – would set them back on track.

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