Heineken Cup: Europe's finest face Ulster onslaught
Published 08/10/2010 | 00:01
The waiting is almost over; tonight Ulster launch their bid to progress beyond the pool stage of the Heineken Cup for only the second time.
Incredibly, they have achieved that just once — back in 1999 when they went on to win the competition.
In the three seasons prior to that memorable triumph and in the 11 which have followed, Ulster failed to make the quarter-finals.
Thus tonight at Ravenhill there will be youngsters who have no recollection of Ulster ever having been in the knock-out phase.
Last year, of course, they went agonisingly close to ending that famine.
And, having done so, they are determined there will be no such disappointment this time.
In preparing his troops for battle, coach Brian McLaughlin has tried to use the pain of that memory in the hope it will serve to steel their resolve to avoid any repetition.
Quite apart from the anguish occasioned by having exited in such cruelly improbable circumstances back in January, the knock-on effect was that Ulster were derailed in the Magners League, too.
After bowing out of the Heineken Cup their form in the league nose-dived dramatically; witness a home draw with Newport Gwent Dragons followed by a run of five successive defeats at the hands of Scarlets, Cardiff (twice), Ospreys and then Glasgow.
But if disappointment in the Heineken Cup serves to de-motivate, is the opposite not true, too?
In other words, would success not ignite things on other fronts as well?
Ulster believe so, for which reason the talk now is of using the Heineken Cup as a launch-pad from which to project themselves to new heights as 2010/11 progresses.
Everything is in place for a winning start, for although those at Newforge/Ravenhill are far too diplomatic to say otherwise, Ulster know the fixtures have fallen particularly kindly for them in terms of facilitating lift-off.
Had they been able to do so, Aironi at home first time out is the fixture both Biarritz Olympique and Bath would have chosen too.
If that is a case of good fortune, then after last season’s adversity it would indeed be a harsh individual who would argue Ulster were not due a kindly bounce.
Tonight there are two changes from the side which defeated Glasgow last weekend, one in the pack and one behind the scrum.
Up front, Tim Barker gets the nod to start at lock ahead of Dan Tuohy who is named on the bench.
Influential tighthead BJ Botha misses out, however.
Named earlier in the week in the extended panel, the wrist injury sustained two weeks ago against Connacht in Galway has not quite healed.
Behind the pack, Ian Humphreys takes over at 10 from Niall O'Connor.
The prospect of Humphreys playing in tandem with the excellent Ruan Pienaar opens up a number of exciting possibilities.
Humphreys likes to attack, is capable of some great breaks and, on his day, kicks well out of hand, too.
Undoubtedly an on-song Humphreys is an asset and those who flock to Ravenhill tonight will be hoping he can seize the opportunity to shine in what will be his first outing of the competitive season. He has every incentive, for having been ousted by O’Connor, finally he gets his chance to force a re-think.
Tonight’s line-up ticks most boxes for while it is a very powerful Ulster pack — imperative |given the strength of the forwards Aironi are fielding — there is also mobility and no lack of |skill among those big men.
They can ball-carry, recycle and pop passes. Equally, they can stand their ground and slog it out.
The key will be the speed at which they are able to feed Pienaar — and through him, Humphreys and the backs beyond. The line-up suggests a commitment to attack and to moving the ball, for it makes no sense to include wings of the calibre of Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli if their talents out wide are not utilised.
Bath and Biarritz will watch this one with particular interest ahead of their tete-a-tete at The Rec on Sunday.
For they — like Ulster — will fancy their chances of winning each of their home games.
All three will feel they can |win at Stadio Luigi Zaffanella, too, for which reason for-against point differentials and bonuses may well be required in order to sort the wheat from the Pool 4 chaff come January.
Four Ulster tries tonight, then? They will never say so, but don’t be fooled by their silence; that will be their objective.