It’s the final countdown for Ulster's Heineken dream
Ulster can’t wait to get to Twickers for showdown
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin may be stepping aside after the Heineken Cup final, but even now his commitment to the cause remains total.
His determination to sign off in style after three seasons as head coach shone through at Tuesday’s announcement of the 31-strong squad for Saturday evening’s Twickenham shoot-out against Leinster, the reigning European club champions.
McLaughlin was in an up-beat mood at Newforge where he displayed anticipation rather than apprehension.
“This is probably the first time in my time that both teams are going to be at full strength, or close to it anyway, and certainly from our point of view we’re looking forward to it,” he said.
At that, he changed tack, momentarily lauding the opposition.
“But we’re under no illusions, either. Leinster are going for their third Heineken Cup and they’re a smashing rugby side, there’s no doubt about that,” he said.
Then having paid the holders that compliment, he promptly threw down the gauntlet by showing that whilst Ulster are respectful of Leinster, they certainly are not deferential.
“We’re really looking forward to playing them,” McLaughlin added. “We’re not going to make up the numbers — we’re going to Twickenham to make sure that we perform and show what a quality side we are as well.”
Recalling Ulster’s memorable 22-16 Heineken Cup quarter-final victory at Thomond Park on Easter Sunday, McLaughlin said his side will have to better that performance on Saturday.
“We’ll have to be at the Munster level and probably a little bit better as well,” he said.
“But I have no doubt that the players here are more than capable of performing at that level again — and going one step further.”
Stressing that these are the sort of fixtures in which players want to feature, McLaughlin’s take on his squad was: “They’re a very talented bunch and these are the places they want to be. This is where they want to play their rugby — at the very top.
“And if we want to get regularly to that top table then we’ve got to prove at Twickenham that we’re a quality side and we deserve to be there.”
Pointing out that Leinster have held sway in all five meetings with their northern neighbours since he enlisted, captain Johann Muller said: “We’ve come close but we haven’t beaten them yet.
“Obviously they are massive favourites and that’s a nice tag for us to have as well, going into the game as underdogs.
“But I can tell you one thing; this group of players and the management honestly and truly believe that we can beat them at the weekend.”
Coach McLaughlin was equally positive regarding what lies ahead and about Ulster’s prospects.
“It has been an outstanding week,” he said. “We’ve always said throughout the year how exciting the European Cup weeks are. Now we’re heading for the final so training this week has been a step up. It has been outstanding.
“Johann and the rest of the players have really been performing out there and we’ve just got to make sure that we carry that through onto the field on Saturday.”
Asked if he expected injured Ireland and Lions star Brian O’Driscoll to turn out in the centre for Leinster, McLaughlin smiled broadly.
“I’m sure wild horses wouldn’t hold him back; he’ll be there alright,” the Ulster coach forecast, before underlining his inherent decency as a human being.
“These are the occasions that, as a coach, you want all of your players fit and available for.
“You don’t want to see anybody injured; these are the days that everybody dreams of playing in and you wouldn’t wish anybody to miss an occasion like this. Hopefully Brian will be raring to go on the day and I’m sure he will be,” McLaughlin said.
Ulster themselves are confident that Chris Henry will be available on Saturday evening.
The open-side — Ulster’s Player of the Year — has trained on each of the past two days, suggesting he has recovered from his strained ankle ligaments injury.
“We’re very hopeful that he will be A-OK for the weekend,” McLaughlin told the assembled media hordes, with Henry’s availability for press interviews — always a strong indicator that a player will be in the starting XV — confirming Ulster’s confidence.