Thursday 18 January 2018

Ulster desperate to avoid Wasps' sting and get Champions Cup bid off to flyer

John Cooney Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
John Cooney Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Ulster won't have to dig too far into the memory bank to recall how costly a slow start to their Champions Cup campaign can be.

Defeat in Bordeaux this time last year left Les Kiss' side on the back foot from the off and ultimately, for the third year running, without a place in the knockout stages.

They will be comforted by the fact they don't have to travel to France for their opener this time around but welcoming a wounded Wasps side to Ravenhill poses all sorts of potential threats.

Ulster have shown flashes of their undoubted quality this season, not least last week when Jacob Stockdale and Charles Piutau combined for a stunning try of the season contender but struggling against both Italian teams, who are admittedly improving, has left the same old question marks hanging over them.

John Cooney and Christian Lealiifano's half-back partnership has been one of the real bright notes, while so too have Stockdale's eye-catching performances.

Anyone who has tracked the 21-year-old's progress since he was a stand-out player for the Ireland U-20s in recent seasons won't be at all surprised by how quickly he is developing into a top player and, based on current form, he looks to be at the head of the queue for a starting place on the wing for Ireland next month.

On their day, Ulster's potent backline will cause problems for most teams in Europe but whether or not they are given the platform to do so by their forwards remains their biggest issue.

Shuffle Chris Henry (larynx) and Alan O'Connor (concussion) miss this evening's clash which means that Kiss is forced to shuffle his pack.

Iain Henderson shifts to the engine room where he skippers his home province for the first time, with Robbie Diack and Sean Reidy coming into the back-row.

Ulster need a big shift from their front-row trio Kyle McCall, Rob Herring and Wiehahn Herbst before Kiss looks to his bench which looks light on firepower.

Wasps come into the game on the back of four straight Premiership defeats which, for a money-laden club with lofty ambitions, is unacceptable. There is plenty of Irish interest in their ranks as former Leinster centre Brendan Macken starts while so does Jimmy Gopperth. Marty Moore, however, has to make do with a place on the bench.

"Wasps, we know what they offer," Kiss said. "We played Wasps in a friendly and the way they got the width early was a challenge for us. They are quick and they play with their big thrusting forwards like (Nathan) Hughes and (Joe) Launchbury to get the ball to Gopperth.

"They are missing (Danny) Cipriani but they get into that shape and there are three guys in the wide channels who have blistering speed, so it is going to be a tough ask for us in that area.

"We have got to slow their momentum somehow and then make sure we are balanced in our defensive line.

"We want to make sure our scrum gets in front of a few little things that have been mentioned, and probably just make sure when we get down into the opposition '22 that we make sure we are a little more clinical.

"It's going to be massive for us, so it's always important to win your home games in this competition and that's our mission."

It's not quite mission impossible but Ulster will certainly have their work cut out. Holding their own up front will be the key to not facing another uphill battle in their quest to return to the knockout stages.

Verdict: Ulster

Ulster - C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, J Cooney; K McCall, R Herring, W Herbst; K Treadwell, I Henderson (capt); R Diack, S Reidy, J Deysel. Reps: J Andrew, C Black, R Ah You, M Rea, C Ross, P Marshall, P Nelson, T Bowe.

Wasps - W le Roux; C Wade, E Daly, B Macken, J Bassett; J Gopperth, D Robson; M Mullan, T Cruse, J Cooper-Woolley; J Launchbury (capt), W Rowlands; J Haskell, T Young, N Hughes. Reps: A Johnson, S McIntyre, M Moore, J Gaskell, J Willis, J Simpson, R Miller, M Watson.

REF - B Whitehouse (Wales)

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