Henderson back to lift Ulster for Sarries bid
If Ulster are to make an impression on this season's Champions Cup, then a win at home to Saracens tonight is non-negotiable.
Having sat out last weekend's opening round of fixtures as a result of the mass postponement of games in France, they will be fresh but relatively untested as they take on the English champions, who are yet to lose a game this season.
The return of Iain Henderson ahead of schedule is a major boost to Les Kiss's team and may even tip the balance in their favour. The breakout star of Ireland's World Cup campaign in the second-row, the 23-year-old reverts to the blindside for his province and will look to inflict maximum damage on the visiting Londoners with ball in hand.
Kiss will hope that the month off won't have blunted Henderson's edge, but his presence and that of centre Stuart McCloskey, who was due to miss last weekend's opener in Oyonnax, increases the physicality of the home side against the brutish team assembled by Mark McCall.
Ulster will feel that they owe Saracens. In 2013, they lost out to the English side in the quarter-finals at Twickenham and a year later they were left furious after Jared Payne received an early red card at Ravenhill and they came up short again.
Third time's a charm? Well, they'll need to be at their best to beat this hard-to-like, but excellent Saracens team who are perennial semi-finalists and firmly among the established elite. Last week's win over Toulouse was a reminder of their talents. They have threats all over the park, with the Vunipola brothers able to wreak havoc with ball in hand up front and their experienced back-three of Alex Goode, Chris Ashton and Chris Wyles capable of doing the basics and cutting loose if necessary.
Owen Farrell might be a divisive figure, but he remains a quality out-half and with Brad Barritt outside him they have a solid defensive core.
By playing it tight in their home fixture last year, Munster managed to frustrate Saracens and Conor Murray was key to their efforts. Tonight, Ruan Pienaar will look to control things from the base of the ruck in his own inimitable style.
It is a big night for Paddy Jackson who must be dying for a chance to prove Joe Schmidt wrong after falling out of favour at the World Cup. The Ulster fly-half is only a couple of months younger than his opposite number tonight, but he is not yet seen as being in the same class and needs a big European season to establish himself as a viable contender for the Ireland out-half position.
Another who can make big strides towards international honours is McCloskey, who comes in for Luke Marshall. The big centre can give his side go-forward ball and use his hands to unlock space for others like wingers Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy who are in good form and the returning full-back Louis Ludik who is anticipating a tough test.
"Their record speaks for itself," the South African said of Saracens.
"They haven't been beaten this season so far and last week they upped their game against Toulouse and they were just a class act.
"It's going to be a massive challenge and obviously with the crowd behind us at Kingspan we can pull through. If you lose a home game it's almost game over."
Ludik is expecting Sarries to play their pressure game and look to squeeze the home side and force errors.
"Saracens like to kick the ball a lot and put them up high; they try and force guys to make bad decisions at the back," he said. "They've got a few things, but they can also change it up if they want to. If it's a dry night they might play a bit more but whatever they do, they do with clarity and everyone knows what they're doing."
It might be predictable, but it is hard to stop. Ulster may have a game in hand, but they know that with back-to-back games against Toulouse up next, they can't afford to slip up against Saracens again.
Ulster - L Ludik; A Trimble, D Cave, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), W Herbst; D Tuohy, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, N Williams. Reps: R Herring, K McCall, R Lutton, R Diack, R Wilson, P Marshall, I Humphreys, P Nelson.
Saracens - A Goode; C Ashton, D Taylor, B Barritt (capt), C Wyles; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, S Brits, P du Plessis; G Kruis, M Itoje; M Rhodes, J Burger, B Vunipola. Reps: J George, R Gill, J Figallo, A Hargreaves, J Wray, N de Kock, C Hodgson, M Bosch.
Referee: R Poite (France).
Ulster v Saracens
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