Heineken Cup: Ulster have mix to end French hoodoo
Published 17/01/2012 | 10:04
Ulster, guaranteed European action - be it Heineken Cup or Challenge Cup - beyond next week whatever happens in their imposing final-round visit to Clermont, are sweating on the fitness of influential centre Darren Cave.
Cave twisted a foot during the memorable 41-7 win over Leicester at Ravenhill last Friday night and is awaiting the results of a scan.
A win for Ulster would ensure that they top their group and qualify for a home tie in the quarter-finals, while a losing bonus point may still be enough to ensure their passage to the last eight as a best-qualified runner-up, providing a couple of other results go their way.
However, director of rugby David Humphreys has predicted bullishly that his side have the necessary ingredients to ensure their second successive quarter-final appearance following a decade of underachievement for the 1999 champions.
And he believes that his side can erase their record of being the only Irish team not to win a European tie on French soil - their sorry record reads: played 13, drew 1, lost 12.
"The manner of the win over Leicester shows that we have the experience and quality to move in the right direction," said Humphreys. "The players we have now are as good as any that have pulled on the Ulster shirt for a long time.
"I rate Clermont as the top team in Europe in terms of the depth and quality of their squad, and they have a wonderful home record.
"It will be a huge test for us, but if we play as we did on Friday night, we have a great opportunity of going there and causing an upset. If we do, the prize of a home quarter-final awaits us."
The former Irish out-half's brother, current No 10 Ian, has praised the influence of attack coach Neil Doak, as Ulster bask in a terrific run of free-scoring form which has seen them snaffle five bonus-point wins in six games.
And he points to last week's decision to tie down both scrum-halves Ruan Pienaar and promising Irish prospect Paul Marshall as indicative of the province's soaring ambitions to challenge the European elite.
"I work with Doaky and I think my game has come on with him," said Humphreys Jnr. "His knowledge of the game is brilliant. I like the way he thinks about rugby. Week on week we've been noticing slight improvements in training and in our games."
Bizarrely, Sky Sports are set to screen the biggest match of the weekend behind the red button - with already doomed Leicester's tie against also-rans Aironi claiming the main mid-Saturday slot.