Belfast Telegraph

Heineken Cup: McLaughlin must wait for Best to get all-clear

By Ciaran Donaghy

Ulster skipper Rory Best faces a race to be fit for Saturday's final Heineken Cup game in Aironi.

The Irish hooker suffered a popped rib in last weekend's 9-6 win over Biarritz at Ravenhill which has put Ulster on the brink of reaching the last eight in Europe for the first time since they lifted the trophy in 1999.

Best spent a lengthy period on the sidelines last season with a neck injury before returning to action in the Six Nations and has just recovered from a fractured cheekbone which he suffered in the autumn internationals against New Zealand.

Best latest setback came against the French side with only six minutes of the bruising Pool Four encounter remaining.

Ulster will give Best all the time he needs to recover and a final decision on his fitness will be made nearer the end of the week.

Nigel Brady, who replaced Best on Saturday, would come into the middle of the front row with Andi Kyriacou being promoted to the bench if the captain is ruled out.

South African prop BJ Botha is almost certain to miss the game after he picked up an elbow injury against Biarritz.

Botha left the pitch with 10 minutes to go and is to go for a scan but he looks doubtful to be on the plane to Italy.

That leaves coach Brian McLaughlin with a number of options in the front row. Declan Fitzpatrick replaced Botha last Saturday and also started at tight head in the New Year's day defeat at Munster, Tom Court could switch to tight head with either Bryan Young or Paddy McAllister coming in on the loose head side.

Meanwhile, last Saturday's match-winner Ian Humphreys believes Ulster can't take Aironi for granted.

Ulster scrapped a Magners League victory at the Stadio Zaffanella in September but were more clinical in the opening round of the Heineken Cup when they won with a bonus point at Ravenhill.

“We only beat Aironi over there due to an incept try by Robbie Diack and Biarritz were beat there, it won't be easy and none of the players think it will be, it's going to be a really physical battle and we'll have to prepare for them like we did for Biarritz,” said Humphreys.

“Hopefully we can go over to Italy and get a result and fingers crossed that Bath can do something for us at Biarritz.”

For the second consecutive game Humphreys, who reached a Heineken Cup final with Leicester, was awarded the man of the match accolade although he paid tribute to the Ulster pack for paving the way to victory.

“Getting man of the match goes with the territory of being a kicker and it could have went to anyone of the forwards and they probably deserved it more than I did but you live and die by your goal kicking and fortunately it's going ok at the moment,” he said.

Humphreys had to show a cool head to win it for Ulster against Biarritz with a late penalty from his own half.

“I was thinking with the final kick to just get it into the air and let the wind do the rest, I wasn't thinking about circumstances of whether this will win the game or not,” he said.

“I was standing over a kick last year and Paddy Wallace said to me just think process not outcome and that's all you can do.”

Ulster will travel to Italy with great confidence as Aironi have lost all five home games in the Magners League.

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