Friday 15 December 2017

Muller back to boost Ulster's title charge

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IT has been a roller coaster first season for Ulster coach Mark Anscombe, who must wonder whether there is much else that can be packed into nine months.

His initial on-field success was overshadowed by the tragic death of Nevin Spence, but his players kept on going regardless, setting the standard in the Heineken Cup and Pro12.

Then came December and that glorious victory at Northampton, when Ulster played like potential European champions at Franklin's Gardens.

It seemed not to matter too much when Johann Muller went off with an arm injury during the second half of that all-powerful performance. But since losing their captain, Ulster have not hit those heights and Muller has been followed on to the treatment table by almost a full team of international-standard players.

News that Muller is back in the second-row must come as great relief to Ulster fans starting to fear that a glorious season was slipping away.

Tommy Bowe, Dan Tuohy, Stephen Ferris, Iain Henderson, Paddy Wallace, Jared Payne, Nick Williams, Ruan Pienaar and Chris Henry joined Muller in suffering injury as they lost out on a home Heineken Cup quarter-final and then slipped off top spot in the Pro12.

Tonight at Murrayfield, they can recover that position, and the return of Muller and Payne will do much to boost their efforts, while Williams is on the bench after his knee problems.

Edinburgh will be coached by Stevie Scott, who replaced Michael Bradley at the helm, and have a number of Scottish internationals on their bench, including Ross Ford and Tim Visser.

They will want to start the new era well, but Ulster have more to play for. Muller's presence should help them get the win they desperately crave.

Williams will make an impact off the bench, particularly given the presence of lock Dan Tuohy on the blindside in a back-row that shows just how decimated Ulster are.

Rory Best and Luke Marshall are given the weekend off, but Ulster still look strong enough to come away from a venue where Edinburgh have not won in the Pro12 since November.

Having let an 11-point lead at the top slip away, full-back Payne is keen for the side to get back on track.

"We had a big sit-down on Monday and identified the areas we think we can improve on, and hopefully doing that can improve the results and get a bit of a winning momentum (going)," said the Kiwi.

Verdict: Away win

EDINBURGH – G Tonks; L Jones, D Fife, B Atiga, T Brown; P Francis, S Kennedy; A Jacobsen, S Lawrie, W Nel; G Gilchrist, S Cox (capt); S McInally, R Rennie, N Talei. Reps: R Ford, J Yapp, G Cross, P Parker, H Watson, R Rees, H Leonard, T Visser.

ULSTER – J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, S Olding, M Allen; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Herring, J Afoa; J Muller, L Stevenson; D Tuohy, M McComish, R Diack. Reps: N Annett, C Black, R Lutton, N Williams, A Birch, M Heaney, R Andrew, P Nelson.

REF – L Hodges (WRU)

Edinburgh v Ulster

Live, BBC 1 NI (Red button), 7.30

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