Power surge at front for Ulster
Front row forwards tend not to be chosen as candidates for pin-up or poster-posing work.
Former England prop Paul Rendall famously described hooker Brian Moore by saying: “I think his teeth are the kind you get from a DIY shop and hammer in yourself. He is the only player we have who looks like a French forward.” It was meant to be a compliment.
Of late there have been plenty of those about Ulster’s first-choice trio, Tom Court, Rory Best and John Afoa. Deservedly so, for they have been key figures in Mark Anscombe’s side’s winning run, the Ulster scrum having established itself as the single most important weapon in the armoury.
The French understand and appreciate scrummaging and the dark arts associated with it better than most so Castres Olympique will be hugely respectful of those wearing numbers one, two and three when Ulster run out at Stade Pierre Antoine on Saturday.
Loose-head Court said: “Scrummaging has been going pretty well, but when you’ve got a tight-head like John and somebody like Rory tucked in next to you it makes things very easy. It means you can really have a crack.
“To be a part of something like that is fairly special and when you get a bit of consistency through playing with each other it becomes a bit more intuitive. You get a feel for each other, we know how one another work.
“It’s almost like inter-locking blocks that fit together perfectly. It has just really clicked into place, but those two boys make it a lot easier.
“A lot of the stuff John does probably goes unseen, but the skills he brings to the table, for a tight-head, are unbelievable.”
He is no less enthusiastic about Best. There is genuine admiration when he said: “Rory? He will probably be having a tour Down Under this summer (with the British & Irish Lions in Australia) so fingers crossed for him for that. He makes my life a lot easier.”
Significantly Court does not confine his praise to those who are his co-workers at the coalface.
“The whole pack have been doing brilliantly lately,” he continued. “When you’re in such a good, cohesive unit it makes it very easy for you and try to give as much as you can.”
The competition for places is intense, with players like Callum Black, Declan Fitzpatrick, Rob Herring, Adam Macklin, Niall Annett, Nigel Brady and Ricky Lutton pushing relentlessly for inclusion.
“It’s a matter of making sure I do my job and keep working hard, don’t let up and don’t let my consistency slip,” was Court’s take on what is required. “You can’t afford to have one bad game.”
As a front-line front-row man his view of the game is straightforward.
“It’s about us trying to get on top so that we can use the set-piece to our advantage,” he reckoned. “You have to get the set-piece right, first and foremost. And don’t let the opposition get ascendancy in the breakdown.
“The forwards have to provide a good platform for the backs to play. If we’re on the back foot and not giving the backs front-foot ball we can’t attack and we can’t get over the gain line.”
The big prop’s no-nonsense assessment of his role and its importance to others is mirrored by their view of Court and co.
Following Friday’s slog in the wind and rain against Glasgow, centre Darren Cave stressed: “Our scrum was exceptional again so credit to Tom Court and Rory Best and John Afoa.”
Flanker and captain Chris Henry lauded that foremost trio, too, saying: “I think once again our scrum was huge. Tom and Rory and John are just doing an incredible job.”
Before last weekend’s match hooker Best warned that with Glasgow out of the running for a place in the quarter-finals of this season’s Heineken Cup, that made them dangerous.
“When they play with no shackles on and play rugby with no pressure they can score tries because they have good players right across the pitch,” he pointed out.
The same will be true of Castres. Now liberated to play without the need to deliver a result and keen to maintain the home form which has seen them lose only once this season at Stade Pierre Antoine — 18-16 against Toulouse on December 30 — the task of securing the bonus point win which would give Ulster an all-important home quarter-final is somewhat daunting.
Messrs Court, Best and Afoa will be central in trying to achieve it.