Former England stand-off, Stuart Barnes, has suggested that Ulster might be well advised to start with Ian Humphreys at number 10 in Saturday’s Heineken Cup final against Leinster at Twickenham.
Barnes, who won only 10 caps in an international career spanning nine years but nevertheless earned British and Irish Lions inclusion, reckons Ulster would be taking a big risk in selecting 20-year-old Paddy Jackson ahead of London Irish-bound Humphreys.
In Barnes’ opinion, 30-year-old Humphreys, who has 82 Ulster appearances to his credit, is a better option than Jackson who has won only 15 senior caps and made just one Heineken Cup start — last month’s semi-final against Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium.
“If I was an Ulster fan I would be worried,” the 49-year-old former Bath and Bristol out-half said.
“I haven’t seen Paddy Jackson play that much so I’m not going to say too much about him.
“I watched a (under) 20s game against England in detail and he looked a very solid player,” was his analysis of Ireland’s current captain at that level.
“But he’s up against the outstanding fly-half in Europe at the moment and — if Leinster’s set-piece is alright — he’s going to be up against some pretty hard-nosed blokes running down his channel. He’s chunky and he’s solid, but this is different.”
Barnes felt that with Jackson in their team, Ulster — not required to nurse the youngster — nevertheless had played a cautious brand of football. “I felt against Edinburgh that he wasn’t protected, but he wasn’t asked to do that much,” he said.
And looking ahead to Saturday evening he added: “This is a Heineken Cup final and I would worry that the team were worried about their 10. He didn’t do anything wrong, but I don’t think Ulster can beat Leinster ‘by not doing anything wrong’.
“They’ve got to do a lot right and frankly, even though he’s going to London Irish and he was awful against Munster (in the quarter-final) when he seemed not to handle the pressure, I think a gamble on Humphreys might be the right call for this game. I really do.”
Explaining why he has come to that conclusion Barnes said: “I think Leinster will fancy Paddy Jackson. I’m in no way negating what this kid might have; it’s just a matter of experience. I haven’t seen enough to say that he’s an absolute world-beater, so he’s going to be a target. I think it’s a very big worry for Ulster — very big indeed.”
Turning his attention to the potential battle of the scrum-halves where Ulster’s South African genius Ruan Pienaar will face either Eoin Reddan or Isaac Boss, Barnes said that will a crucial call for Leinster.
“I think that’s a very important selection as well,” said Barnes. “I think (coach) Joe Schmidt gets about one selection wrong for Leinster and I think it’s at nine because Jonny Sexton is a far better player when he’s got the speed of service from Eoin Reddan.
“I think Ireland and Leinster are much better when he (Reddan) plays nine.”
Barnes reckons the Pienaar versus Reddan or Boss head-to-head promises to be pivotal.
“It’s not a matter of being better or worse, because scrum-halves don’t play against each other, apart from the odd moment in the scrum,” he stressed. “They have different roles to play and I think Reddan brings out a great deal in that Leinster team. Pienaar, of course, is tactically superb. I mean, he makes one carry a game in the Heineken Cup and it’s always useful. He did that one against Edinburgh when he shot down the blindside, made 40 metres with a kick and then put the pressure on to win a penalty.
“He’s the best tactical kicking scrum-half in the tournament.”
If Ulster do opt for Jackson alongside Pienaar — which in Barnes’ view they will — that will amount to a statement as to how they intend to play.
“One of the reasons why I think they’ll go for Jackson is because I don’t see Ulster saying ‘Let’s really go and win it by whizzing this ball around’.
“I see Pienaar kicking, probing corners and playing territory. But this match isn’t about territory; it’s about playing from anywhere. I can understand Ulster doing that, but I still have reservations and I can’t see Pienaar carrying a kid if that kid starts to crumble,” he warned.
Barnes also highlighted the importance of Ulster having John Afoa and Chris Henry back in their pack.
Both missed out on the semi-final victory — tight-head Afoa through suspension and Henry with an ankle ligaments injury sustained against Leinster in the PRO12 on April 20.
Barnes is a fan of Henry in particular, going as far as to name him as Ulster’s best player to date in this year’s competition.
Meanwhile, fellow-Sky Sports pundit Dewi Morris — another former England half-back — told journalists assembled at Dublin’s Herbert Park Hotel in Ballsbridge that he feels Ulster could just defy the bookmakers who have installed the holders as clear favourites.
“You’ve got the superstars there — Leinster, the pick of Irish rugby — and you’ve got the guys who want to steal the show, the Ulster boys,” he said.
“One against one, Ulster have to have the best game and Leinster have to be slightly beneath it.
“But Ulster can do it.”