Ulster will field a very much understrength side against Bayonne tomorrow for what is new head coach Brian McLaughlin’s first match in charge.
In the circumstances, not unreasonably he is keen to stress that no-one should attach too much significance to the work-out against their top 14 hosts.
It will be a very young, inexperienced side, for with the IRFU calling the shots on player availability none of Ulster’s best known names will be included. Nor will those who attended last week’s Irish training camp in Belfast where head coach Declan Kidney was on hand to oversee events. Exit most of the first choices, leaving the unfortunate McLaughlin to select from a wholly depleted panel.
While Ulster’s big names are in attendance at the four-day training camp in south-west France, they will be watching from the sidelines as a group of underlings attempt to show McLaughlin and his assistants — Jeremy Davidson and Neil Doak — what they can do.
Given those circumstances, McLaughlin’s desire to play down the significance of his first match in charge is wholly understandable. This is not an ideal set of circumstances in which to find oneself. After all, he did not choose this fixture; it is an inheritance from Matt Williams’ tenure.
While Ulster’s selection options are severely limited, Bayonne have no such restrictions or handicaps. As well as that they are much further on in their pre-season preparations, having already played a full-blooded friendly against Australian tourists, Brumbies. The visitors went down 37-21 last Tuesday, with Bayonne scoring six tries in front of an audience of 10,000.
The aspirational French are in the final stages of their countdown to the 2009-10 Top 14 campaign kick-off in which Perpignan will provide the opposition on August 15. Big-spending Bayonne’s ambitions were further underlined during the summer when France flanker, Remy Martin, joined them from Stade Francais. And the spree continued with French and Italian props Renaud Boyoud and Salvatore Perugini enlisting, along with All Blacks lock Ross Filipo, Samoan pair Gavin Williams (centre) and Ace Tiatia (hooker) and former Australian Rugby League stand-off Craig Gower. Former New Zealand scrum-half Byron Kelleher enlisted last year.
Ulster’s intention is to use all 26 panelists — younger members of the senior squad and a number of players from the High Performance Academy.
The first two days of the camp are being spent at a specialist sports centre in Cassen, where strength and conditioning coaches Jonny Davis and Paul Hatton are working with the party.