Sunday 21 January 2018

George Hook: Ulster have all the tools to silence Tigers' roar

Prop John Afoa is heading to Gloucester next season so this is his last chance to win silverware with Ulster
Prop John Afoa is heading to Gloucester next season so this is his last chance to win silverware with Ulster
George Hook

George Hook

They are a funny bunch, the Ulster set. Stranded between a rock (Ireland) and a hard place (Britain) they don't fit with either side, yet seem perfectly content with their lot.

Perhaps isolation suits their cause, even strengthens it. Burdened under political cloud and the constant simmer of religious divide, Ulster rugby has had to negotiate many obstacles over the last few years of the professional game.

European triumph over Colomiers at Lansdowne Road in the final of 1999 should have paved the way for national unity. Ulster had succeeded where Munster and Leinster had consistently failed, yet despite victory in 1999, an asterisk remained over the tournament campaign.

The absence of English clubs in the 98/99 season meant that Ulster were not afforded due credit or recognition from their peers. Success came with a caveat and that caveat hung like a heavy stone around their necks for many years. How ironic, then, that the stone used to beat them in provincial rivalries would become the rock upon which Ulster would build their future foundation.

Against all manner of difficulties in recent times, Ulster Rugby has prospered and strengthened. Solid systems in the underage academy and an increasingly impressive Ulster Ravens squad has contributed to the strength in depth currently on display in the senior ranks. Results are beginning to come with impressive regularity.

Last year, on the back of an incredible winning streak, Ulster blew all opposition away in the first half of the season. They played with hardened ferocity up front and, guided by the ultra-cool Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half, played with slick agility and commitment out wide. They were widely regarded as one of the most feared and impressive sides in Europe.

STRANGE

Then something strange happened. A home defeat to Northampton in the pool stages of the Heineken Cup denied Ulster a home quarter-final.

Instead of marching out in front of their formidable support at Ravenhill, they were forced to make the daunting trek to Saracens and Twickenham for a last-eight encounter. The rest, as they say, is history.

This season, the atmosphere around east Belfast has been notably different. The hype that propelled last year's campaign to the heights it reached has disappeared. In its place, Ulster have been cautious and measured in their approach; quick to play down talk of potential silverware.

Yet, despite adopting this approach, confidence and self-belief remains in abundance. Injuries have hampered their cause, with Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Nick Williams, Johann Muller, Chris Henry and Jared Payne all falling victim to the physical demands of the game at one stage or another.

Add in the considerable absence of Pienaar during the Rugby Championship and Ulster's rise to the top of their European pool seems all the more impressive.

This afternoon Mark Anscombe faces the ultimate litmus test at Welford Road. Despite their record in this tournament, Leicester's recent form in the Heineken Cup is such that they can no longer be considered a European powerhouse. Two-time winners of the title, their last success came in 2002.

They have been runners-up on three occasions, including in 2009 when they lost to Leinster and they remain the only English side to have qualified for the tournament each year since its inception.

The Tigers' form this year has been distinctly average. Richard Cockerill's side currently sit outside the play-off spots in fifth place in the Premiership table and are without their most destructive and influential ball carrier, Manu Tuilagi, because of injury.

The form of scrum-half Ben Youngs has disimproved to such an extent that he can no longer be considered ahead of Danny Care and Lee Dickson in the England pecking order, while Toby Flood's imminent move to France appears to have depleted his resolve for the domestic game.

Leicester's squad has changed since Martin Johnson guided them to their last Heineken Cup win in 2002, but their rugby philosophy and appetite for war remains constant. The Tigers love nothing more than a good old-fashioned scrap.

The challenge for Ulster will come up front. Rory Best's recent return from injury could not have come at a better time for the Irish province and his leadership, along with Muller's in the second-row, will be vital if they are to come away from Welford Road with a win.

John Afoa, Gloucester-bound next season, has one last chance to win silverware with this team. Similarly, Tom Court's imminent move to London Irish and Muller's lean towards retirement in the summer mean that Ulster have just one last shot at the big time with this current crop of players. One would also hope that Nick Williams hasn't lost too much match fitness after a recent spell on the sidelines. The former Munster No 8 needs a massive game to help his side get on the front foot.

Ulster have all the tools necessary to beat their hosts. The hardship of last season's abrupt exit at the hands of Saracens will still leave a bitter taste in the players' mouths, but there is enough experience and talent in the Ulster ranks to dismantle a one-dimensional Tigers team that is incapable of varying its game plan beyond scrap and maul.

This afternoon Ulster have a wonderful opportunity to banish the pain of last season and take a huge step towards adding to their 1999 triumph.

A home quarter-final beckons with England's finest standing in their way. They will need little motivation.

Leicester v Ulster - Guide to the game

Form guide: Ulster WWWWW, Leicester WLWDL

Betting: Leicester 4/7, Draw 20/1, Ulster 11/8

Handicap: Leicester (-3) 10/11,

handicap draw (-3) 18/1, Ulster (+3) 10/11

KEY MAN

Ruan Pienaar

His influence on this side is too over-bearing for some -- whether it is the claustrophobia of Paddy Jackson on his kicking detail or the eclipse of Paul Marshall -- again overlooked by Ireland this spring. But the Springbok's impact is undeniable. Pienaar has scored one and made three try assists so far, also making three clean breaks. His kicking game in phased play can dictate matters if Ulster's forwards sneak a vital edge.

THREE THINGS ULSTER MUST DO

Kick cleverly

Ulster withdrew their two half-backs from media duties this week so that they could go through an extra hour of kicking practise. Leicester's assistant backs coach Geordan Murphy expects the visiting side to use the boot extensively. Ulster kick more -- on average 29 times per game -- than any of the other 19 teams in the competition. But if only one is poorly executed, it could cost them seven points which, in a tight game, could mean defeat.

Neutralise Leicester from touch

Leicester rank fourth at the line-out in this season's Heineken Cup and, with four locks genuinely competing for starts this week, it is is a well-oiled facet of their game. They have come up with more line-out steals -- 20 -- than any other European side to date. Tom Youngs has an 88pc success rate and, in set-piece and phased play, his contest with Rory Best will be captivating.

Defend the mauls

If Leicester get the opportunity, they will seek to attack Ulster via the maul, an effective weapon that can propel the side forward or spark an attack against a back-pedalling defence. Ulster struggled against Munster, not knowing whether to sack the maul or drive it; they must have a continuity of approach. Maintaining their excellent discipline -- they have only coughed up eight penalties a game -- will help, as the less chances Leicester have to kick to touch, the better.

Irish Independent

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