Belfast Telegraph

Heineken Cup: No Botha, but Ulster’s big guns take aim at Aironi

By Niall Crozier

Brian McLaughlin is keeping all of his options open ahead of Saturday’s must-win game.

The Ulster coach has named a 32-strong squad, with South African tighthead BJ Botha the only player missing from the 23 involved in last weekend’s triumph over Biarritz Olympique.

A scan of big the Springbok’s elbow injury — picked up 10 minutes before the final whistle in Saturday’s bruising Pool 4 match — was inconclusive, with severe bruising making it impossible to see the exact state of play.

So while his Ulster colleagues are on their way to Italy and the big match against Aironi, Botha will be undergoing an exploratory operation in the hope of ascertaining the precise nature and extent of his injury.

McLaughlin explained: “It’s ligament. The scan, with the swelling, wasn’t 100 per cent clear so they’ve decided to take a look on Friday to see exactly what the problem is. “If the ligament has to be stitched back on then they will do that on Friday as well.”

He was unwilling to speculate on how long Botha may be missing. “It will just depend on happens and on the outcome (of Friday’s operation),” McLaughlin explained.

The unfortunate Botha’s absence has not adversely affected spirits in the Ulster camp, however, and with captain Rory Best able to throw into the line-out

during yesterday’s Newforge work-out the mood was given a boost. Not that it needed one, for Ulster are where they had hoped to be going into the final group-stage match.

A win against opponents they have already beaten away from home in this season’s Magners League will be sufficient to end a 12-year wait for inclusion in the last eight of European club rugby’s premier tournament.

That is their sole objective, a point McLaughlin was keen to stress. Bank four points and forget all about events in south-west France where, simultaneously, Biarritz will be hosting Bath.

“We’ve got to get a win first and foremost. We’ll worry about whether or not we can put the icing on the cake with a bonus later in the game,” he added.

“We said at the start of the Heineken (Cup) that we wanted the games to keep getting bigger and bigger. Yes, Biarritz at home last week was a huge game for us but if we want to get to the quarter-final then this Aironi game is even bigger.” There is no danger of Ulster underestimating the Italians.

“They’re a very proud lot and certainly at home they will be a very difficult nut to crack,” said McLaughlin.

“They have already beaten Biarritz there and we had a tough game against them out there in September. So we are under no illusions; we know it’s going to be an exceptionally difficult task. If we want to get to where we want to be we’ve got to go there and win.”

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