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Heineken Cup: Ulster get physical as they march on Saints

By Niall Crozier

Ulster have opted to go the tried and trusted route on Sunday.

henry edges faloon for heineken crunchQuality: Jim Mallinder, Northampton’s coach, is wary of the danger posed to his side by Ian Humphreys

For what will be their biggest match since winning rugby’s Heineken-sponsored European Cup 12 years ago, coach Brian McLaughlin will begin with all but one of the players who were in last weekend’s starting line-up against Scarlets.

The unfortunate omission is openside Willie Faloon who drops to the bench to accommodate the return of Chris Henry.

Clearly McLaughlin’s reading of Sunday’s game is that physicality is going to be crucial against opponents who major on set piece ball coupled with ability to maul from the line-out in particular.

There can be no refuting the Ulster coach’s logic bearing in mind the strength of the opposition loose forwards trio of Phil Dowson, Tom Wood, Roger Wilson. They are three first-rate back row men, each capable of inflicting enormous damage.

That being the case it was no contest — Henry is 6ft 3ins and tips the scales at 16st 11lbs; Faloon stands 6ft and weighs 14st 2lbs albeit that he is faster and a genuine openside unlike Henry who slots in most naturally at No 8 and, second-best scenario, is more at ease at six than at seven.

It is not the first time McLaughlin has gone this route. In the opening match of the 2010/11 Heineken Cup campaign — against Aironi at Ravenhill on October 8 — he deployed the same three players in his back row.

Then, too, Henry packed down on the openside flank. On that occasion, however, Pedrie Wannenburg wore six, Robbie Diack played No 8. Tomorrow the South African pair swap.

In naming his team McLaughlin’s Northampton counterpart, Jim Mallinder, paid Ulster a huge compliment.

“They are second in the Magners League and come over with six successive wins under their belt. In Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys they have a pair of good half-backs, and they have international quality throughout their team.

“We got some good (Aviva Premiership) results against Wasps and Sale, but the Heineken Cup is a massive step up and we will have to be on our best form to get a positive result on Sunday.”

If that is true of Northampton it is certainly no less the case with Ulster.

McLaughlin’s side can win this battle, but to do so they must raise their game considerably.

Only by wedding the intensity, aggression, passion and commitment of their 9-6 Heineken Cup Pool-stage home win over Biarritz Olympique to the skill-level of their Magners League performance against Cardiff Blues six weeks ago when they won 32-13 in what was their best display of the season to date, can they progress.

But they can do it; they are capable.

Intensity is everything and if they are to give themselves a chance Ulster must show it from first to last whistles. Three weeks ago at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland did that against an England side which included four of those who will start tomorrow for Northampton.

Ulster must adhere to the winning formula Declan Kidney has provided. In among them, in their faces, constant pressure, no respite, hassle, harry, hound, harass.

Okay; decision time. Verdict? Ulster to win by a single score.

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