Ulster focus can fashion success
Disconnecting hype from reality can be a tricky affair.
Ulster awoke in Italy this morning having convinced themselves that they're about to face the equivalent of the Hermann Göring Paratroop Division in full flight, masquerading as the Aironi team in today's final Heineken Cup Pool 4 game.
This is all well and good. Ulster must not only beat the Italian provincial team in Viadana this afternoon (1.30), but score four tries to secure a bonus point that will propel them into the last eight of this season's Heineken Cup.
Thus, it is probably as well that Brian McLaughlin's side have hyped themselves up to expect anything. But the reality is likely to be rather different.
Aironi retreated from their 55-point, eight tries thrashing at Bath last weekend not to the training ground -- but the fashion catwalks of Milan. There, they enacted what the club clearly regards as a rather important piece of business -- a link-up with the Moschino Fashion Company at its Milan show.
Now this might be considered an unusual venue to prepare, mentally and physically, for a tough Heineken Cup match. But we should keep in mind, this is Italy.
Re-arranging hair styles and ensuring optimum colour co-ordinations in clothing are essential elements of everyday life. Stopping Ulster marching into the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup would not figure as prominently on Aironi rugby team's radar at this time.
That is not to say Ulster can afford a laissez faire attitude. That was where Biarritz fell in a heap over here, somehow stumbling to a 28-27 defeat which still threatens to derail their Heineken Cup ambitions for this season.
For, if Ulster do take five points today and Biarritz fail to do the same, at home to Bath, it could be the Basques who find themselves on the road out of the last eight.
So, Ulster are wise to ensure their focus is rigid. But they'd be daft to build little Aironi into supermen. Twelve defeats in 12 Magners League games this season tells you that the Italians have not quite yet reached a stage where the All Blacks would cry off a fixture against them through naked fear.
Granted, there are some wise old dogs in this Aironi squad, especially up front. Five of them have been included in the Italian squad for next month's Six Nations Championship.
They are Salvatore Perugini and Fabio Ongaro, grizzled front-row men down to their crooked teeth; Carlo del Fava, Quintin Geldenhuys and Pablo Canavosio. Marco Bortolami, too, is a sage old practitioner of the dark arts. But Aironi shouldn't hold any fears for Ulster, even if men like out-half Ian Humphreys continued to peddle the propaganda line this week for all it was worth.
"We have put ourselves in a position where a good win over Aironi should get us qualification of some sort," he said, cautiously.
"But it's not going to be easy. They beat Biarritz and we only won over there in the (Magners) League due to an intercept try. So, it's going to be tough."
Well, sort of. But it won't be if Ulster have a practical, down-to-earth approach and show the professionalism you expect of them, to do a solid job. If that happens, I expect them to move smoothly to the five points and qualification.
After all, as even Humphreys points out, Ulster have won six of their last eight games and should be building on that run as the Heineken Pool stages reach their climax. It would only be if they took a similarly sloppy approach as Biarritz that the wheels might yet fall off today.
But why should that happen? Certainly not with men as experienced as their South African contingent, plus Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli also around. The news that Rory Best and BJ Botha are sidelined after failing to recover from injuries sustained against Biarritz last weekend will be a major blow though.
However, this is the exact moment for those highly paid players to demonstrate their worth. But they must look to add more clinical finishing and greater patience in the opposition '22' than they showed against Biarritz at Ravenhill.
Leaving tries out on the field, as they did then, could yet prove costly.
Even so, if Ulster do not win today at the Stade Zaffanella and score at least four tries into the bargain, major questions will need to be asked of their entire structure. Frankly, I don't see that necessity arising.
Verdict: Ulster to win and take the bonus point
Ulster -- A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, N Brady, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller, D Tuohy; S Ferris, W Faloon, P Wannenburg. Reps: A Kyriacou, B Young, J Cronin, T Barker, C Henry, P Marshall, I Whitten, D McIlwaine.
Aironi v Ulster,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 1.30