Following last week’s mind-games, Stade Francais could be forgiven for treating Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin’s 28-strong panel for Saturday’s rematch with a degree of caution.
McLaughlin sold the French a dummy ahead of Saturday’s Heineken Cup pool four clash at Ravenhill by including BJ Botha, despite knowing that the South African tight head had no chance of being fit after suffering a knee injury whist on international duty against Ireland.
When, finally, he came clean in admitting the ruse, McLaughlin said that the match had come just a day or two too early for his scrummaging maestro.
Assuming that Botha’s inclusion on this occasion is bona fide, he is likely to pack down opposite Stade captain, Rodrigo Roncero, whose antics during last weekend’s Belfast battle did little to steer his team in the right direction and even less to endear him to the 11,000-strong Ravenhill crowd, members of which watched in amazement and disgust as he continued to confront referee David Pearson.
Botha and Tom Court offer technically expert and physically strong props either side of Nigel Brady or Andy Kyriacou, the two contenders for the hooker’s job.
Brady made his case well last time round and with the scrummage being key my expectation is that he will shade the vote.
Moving back one row, and the same question arises; stick with last weekend’s starters — Ed |O’Donoghue and Dan Tuohy — or oust the latter in favour Ryan Caldwell, who will be chomping at the bit for a start rather than a place on the bench? Tough one.
Ditto the open side, where Willie Faloon has spent the past few days trying to make his training ground case for inclusion ahead of the man in possession of the number seven jersey, David Pollock. Pollock has it in terms of physicality — 6’2” and 16st 5lbs against Faloon’s 6’0” and 14st 2lbs. That said, Faloon has let no-one down, having been outstanding since the start of the season bar the Glasgow match in which no Ulster player shone.
Stephen Ferris and Chris Henry are guaranteed to start at six and eight, leaving McLaughlin and Jeremy Davidson to ponder on who will give them more around the all-important fringes, making hits and taking the ball forward. Again it’s a big call.
Behind the pack, skipper Paddy Wallace is included again following last week’s assessment by McLaughlin that the centre had “not even been close” to fitness following his ankle injury sustained whilst playing for Ireland against the Springboks.