Heineken Cup: Steely Ulster now happy to handle great expectations
Ulster will walk out onto the Ravenhill turf tomorrow night as favourites to win their make or break showdown with Leicester Tigers — and coach Brian McLaughlin is relishing the prospect.
In a Heineken Cup clash of this magnitude, Ulster have usually enjoyed the position of underdog but now there is a mood of genuine belief that they belong with the elite of the European game.
“It’s nice for us to be talked of as favourites when you’re playing the likes of Leicester; that’s where we want to go to,” he said.
“We know how difficult it is going to be and we know that we’ll have to make sure we’re 100 per cent ready and fired to play the best we possibly can, because that’s what it will take.”
Having lost away to the Tigers in November, McLaughlin feels home advantage along with the role of his forwards in the all-important set-piece battles can swing the match Ulster’s way.
“There’s no doubt they are tough to break down but we’re taking a lot of confidence from our last two outings in the Pro12 and the fact that, over the last few years, Ravenhill in Europe has been very good to us.
“We’re looking forward to getting the crowd behind us as usual and hopefully Ravenhill can be our lucky charm,” McLaughlin said.
With both sides committed to winning in order to maintain their respective challenges for inclusion in the quarter-finals, Ulster know what to expect. “You’re playing Leicester so it’s always going to be a nip-and-tuck game. We’ve played them over there; it was exceptionally tough.
“Their set-piece is quality — their scrum, their line-out — and they base their game around that. They make no secret of that fact,” McLaughlin said.
“It doesn’t matter whether you play Leicester home or away, you’re getting the same package every time.”
Then having dispensed with the obligatory niceties, he cut to the chase. The scrum will be crucial, as will referee Romain Poite handling of it.
The Frenchman officiated at Welford Road in November and Ulster had problems with him early on.
“That will be a crucial area and with Romain Poite refereeing again this weekend that will be a key area for both sides,” McLaughlin said.
“I would say from the last game that there were two penalties very early on against us and the penalty count turned a bit towards Leicester.
“He (Monsieur Poite) is seen to be a very good scrummaging referee in that he will sanction early, but he does enjoy a contest in there.”
If so, McLaughlin believes, Ulster can do damage.
“From our point of view, with John (Afoa) in there and Tom (Court) and Rory (Best) we have a lot of confidence in our scrum,” he said. “When you saw what our set scrum did to Edinburgh – who also have an international front row – at times at the weekend, it is going to be a great contest and one we are really looking forward to.”
The Welford Road experience taught Ulster a lot about Friday night’s opponents and now they aim to make that experience count.
“We did some things really well in that game and we will try to capitalise on those,” McLaughlin said.
“We did others poorly and we will try to get a bit more pressure on them in key areas of the pitch.
“You don’t want to let Leicester into your 22 because their set-piece and maul is so effective and cause you ferocious pressure. So from that point of view we’ll be trying to play in the right areas of the pitch and making sure we limit their options as much as possible,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ulster remain hopeful that injured duo Pedrie Wannenburg and Ian Humphreys will be fit to face the Tigers.
“Ian didn’t train today, he was rehabbing. We are hopeful he’ll be okay to train tomorrow but that’s a bit of a wait-and-see. Pedrie joined the session today and came through okay We’ll know more in the morning, if there has been any reaction to that.”