Tuesday 20 February 2018

Stage set for Anscombe's men to take giant stride forward

Rory Best will make his 150th appearance for Ulster against Leicester at Welford Road today
Rory Best will make his 150th appearance for Ulster against Leicester at Welford Road today
David Kelly

David Kelly

ULSTER coach Mark Anscombe nailed it pretty succinctly as far back as Monday -- this one scarcely needs the PT Barnum build-up.

All the ingredients are there for a titanic tussle: Heineken Cup quarter-final venue on the line; England v Ireland; floodlights on; all within the grandest of old venues in Welford Road.

It's not quite winner takes all -- both have qualified for the quarter-finals already -- but the keen scrap for a home venue is predicated upon the need to avoid historical precedent.

Getting an away quarter-final is usually bad for your health; only 25pc of teams manage to plunder away wins in the last eight.

Ulster's smash and grab in Thomond Park was one such statistical quirk; either side of that 2012 win, normal service was resumed and they twice succumbed in away quarters.

Like Ulster, Leicester have lost a brace of away quarter-finals in the last three seasons, to Leinster (2011) and Toulon (last season's eventual champions).

There is added piquancy in this tie as, presuming other results go to form, this duo are likely to renew acquaintances once more in the quarter-final -- a recent experience of pre-eminence, allied to preferred venue, would be a significant boon to tonight's winners.

FAVOURITES

All five Heineken Cup meetings between the clubs have been won by the home side and Leicester are three-point favourites for this one, albeit these fixtures haven't always been as close as one would assume.

Indeed, when Ulster defeated Leicester 22-16 on opening night, it was the first time in the history of this fixture that the losing side claimed a bonus point, one that allows Leicester the relative luxury of knowing a win by any means necessary will secure their vital home quarter-final.

Had Ulster managed to maintain the historical trend of the winners securing a 4-0 match-point advantage in this fixture, they might have been able to bank on a defeat by less than seven points this evening.

Other events, notably Montpellier's collapse against Leicester and, paradoxically, their stubbornness in Belfast last Friday night, conspired against Ulster and, for neutrals at least, the maths are straightforward.

"It has got all the elements to be a cracking game," enthuses Ireland Grand Slam-winning full-back and Leicester assistant coach Geordan Murphy.

"We want to get a home quarter, we know it will be potentially easier, especially if we're playing Ulster again. It's key if you want to win this competition and we'll be eager to lay down a marker to Ulster or, indeed, anyone else that's left in the competition."

Leicester, historic standard-bearers in this tournament stemming from their back-to-back triumphs in 2001 and 2002, are used to being embroiled in potboilers such as this.

For Ulster, it is a relatively novel experience and, despite being the only side to have reached the last eight in each of the last four seasons, there is a nagging sense that they have yet to truly announce themselves on the European stage, even allowing for their 2012 final appearance when they were blitzed by Leinster.

This weekend is about making a definitive statement, as full-back Jared Payne, amongst many, hinted at this week.

"You play rugby to be involved in nights like this," he said. "Topping the pool and getting a home quarter-final is massive."

That 2012 run to the final was bookended by meek submissions on English soil -- Northampton, Saracens -- in the last eight. If Ulster are to deliver a rousing endorsement of their status as title contenders, Welford Road wouldn't be the worst venue in the world in which to state their claim.

And if this is a huge assignment, Anscombe has announced some appropriately significant calls in terms of team selection in his pack.

Ireland prop Tom Court has been dropped to the bench, with Callum Black handed his first start in Europe.

Also out is Robbie Diack, who has stood in as captain on three occasions this season, replaced at blindside by Roger Wilson, with Nick Williams and Chris Henry retaining their back-row berths.

It is hardly a coincidence that this is the trio that featured in the reverse fixture last October; furthermore, Wilson is a restart king and, in a game likely to be dominated by the set-piece, he has claimed more (13) than any other player in this campaign.

As we already knew, Craig Gilroy will start despite suffering a hairline fracture to his nose last week, but David McIlwaine comes on to the bench to dilute the normal forwards/backs split, while Ricky Lutton replaces concussion victim Declan Fitzpatrick as reserve tighthead.

Rory Best makes his 150th Ulster appearance and his leadership and that of the team's spine -- through Johann Muller, Nick Williams, Ruan Pienaar and Jared Payne -- will be vital to the visitors' cause.

As for Leicester, Richard Cockerill's outfit have ominously begun to take shape. Vice-captain Anthony Allen is joined by Matt Smith in a sturdy midfield, allowing the dangerous Niki Goneva to move to the wing in place of Miles Benjamin, who has a knee injury.

FAMILIAR

Club captain Toby Flood reverts to his more familiar out-half role, while hooker Tom Youngs returns to the front-row after missing the bonus-point win against Treviso last week, with Graham Kitchener and Ed Slater winning the race to play lock.

Jordan Crane will play No 8, with Ben Youngs returning at scrum-half after some indifferent form.

Leicester are formidable, but not unbeatable. "It's been a fantastic achievement along the way to navigate ourselves into the position we're in, but this is one more step we need to take," says Best.

It's time for Ulster to take the great leap forward. It won't be pretty, but the outcome is all that matters.

Verdict: Ulster

Leicester -- M Tait; N Morris, M Smith, A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood (capt), B Youngs; M Ayerza, T Youngs, D Cole, E Slater, G Kitchener, J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane. Reps: R Hawkins, B Stankovich, F Balmain, L Deacon, S Mafi, D Mele, O Williams, S Hamilton.

Ulster -- J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams. Reps: R Herring, T Court, R Lutton, I Henderson, R Diack, P Marshall, D McIlwaine, M Allen.

Ref -- N Owens (WRU)

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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