Ulster bank on big top to rescue Bath showdown
ULSTER are confident Saturday's Heineken Cup clash with Bath will go ahead as scheduled, although the branch have investigated the possibility of staging the Pool 4 game in Lansdowne Road, the RDS or Donnybrook if Ravenhill is deemed to be unplayable.
However, switching the fixture to Dublin should not be necessary as it appears increasingly likely that Ravenhill will be ready, barring a severe deterioration in weather conditions between now and Saturday.
Yesterday, ground staff, Academy players and supporters joined forces to clean snow off the plastic sheet covering the pitch with a giant tent due to be erected today, covering the entire surface with heaters directed at the more frozen areas.
If the game does have to be moved, Donnybrook presents considerable logistical problems in terms of its reduced capacity (6,000-7,000 compared to Ravenhill's 12,300) and its media facilities' capacity to cater for Sky Sports television coverage.
The RDS (18,000) and Lansdowne Road (51,500) would be more logical choices and it is understood that, although Donnybrook is Ulster's preferred alternate venue, the branch have looked at staging the match in the other two Dublin stadiums.
Under ERC regulations, a fine of around €50,000 is administered should a club be unable to stage a match while, last season, there were considerable complications for the squad and their supporters when Ulster's game with Stade Francais in Paris was moved to Brussels.
"We are fairly confident that the game will go ahead at Ravenhill," said an Ulster spokesperson yesterday. "There is a thaw forecast for Thursday and Friday, and with the arrival of the tent, the game should go ahead as planned."
Meanwhile, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin expects to have all his big names available against Bath, with the centre Darren Cave, who had a recurrence of a hamstring injury in training, the only doubt. If Cave fails to come through, his slot next to Paddy Wallace is likely to be filled by Ian Whitten or Nevin Spence.
Once again, there is likley to be no room for flanker Willie Faloon, with McLaughlin set to go with a back row of Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Pedrie Wannenburg.
Dan Tuohy and Johann Muller are the likely second-row partnership with Ruan Pienaar to come in at scrum-half. McLaughlin knows Saturday's match carries a win-or-bust imperative.
"If we want to progress in Europe, we must win our home game on Saturday," said McLaughlin. "If we don't, then the return match will be a dead rubber for us.
"It was disappointing that our game with the Dragons was cancelled last week as there were a number of boys coming back from international duty, and I would have loved to give them a run-out. But there has been an extra intensity in training this week and we are ready for whatever Bath throw at us."