Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Ulster Rugby coach Mark Anscombe goes for risk and reward strategy with surprise calls

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe

Ruan Pienaar starts, but Stephen Ferris does not.

Those were the two big calls when Ulster coach Mark Anscombe unveiled his 15 starters and eight replacements for tonight's Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown with Saracens at Ravenhill (6.30pm).

Anscombe sprang a big surprise by naming both Roger Wilson AND Nick Williams in his back row trio.

Williams' selection at No. 8 sees Wilson switch to the blindside flanker, which in turn means Ferris picks up the tab for that call.

The big man, who has fought so gallantly to resume his injury-threatened career, starts on the bench rather than at six. Chris Henry completes the loose forwards' unit.

Now there is an element of risk to that back row line-up, though Anscombe and his fellow-decision-makers have minimised that by including Iain Henderson and Robbie Diack in their eight replacements.

Between them, Ferris, Diack and Henderson offer enough scope for manoeuvrability to be able to cover numbers four to eight, whatever the eventuality.

Significantly, Saracens have done something not dissimilar, for although Billy Vunipola is fit to resume he starts at blindside rather than at No. 8.

Thus it is Ernst Joubert who starts in the middle of the visitors' back row which means both of Saracens' two excellent ball-carrying, tackle-making loose forwards are included.

As with the back row there is a significant call in Ulster's back three where Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble switch wings.

Bowe, the British and Irish Lions Test star in 2009 and 2013, lines out at 11, with Trimble – outstanding in the just-finished Six Nations which finished with Ireland winning the title – named at 14, the side he much prefers.

Undoubtedly this has been done with a view to countering Saracens out wide. Trimble's selection on the right wing pits him head-to-head with David Strettle while Bowe's inclusion on the left means he is in direct opposition to Chris Ashton, the leading try-scorer to date in this season's Heineken Cup with seven touchdowns in the six pool-stage matches.

Other than that the Ulster line-up was wholly predictable, with fit-again Pienaar reinstated at scrum-half and Paul Marshall restored to the role of understudy following two weeks of playing second fiddle to Michael Heaney who is omitted from the 23.

The scrap for supremacy among the opposing front fives will be intense. Tom Court, Rory Best and John Afoa versus Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits and James Johnston is a battle which will play a huge part in the outcome, ditto Ulster captain Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy v Saracens skipper Steve Borthwick and Mouritz Botha.

Paddy Jackson is again paired with Pienaar in what is Ulster's undisputed first-choice half-back partnership, with their opposition being provided by England team-mates Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell.

One can but wonder how many points that quarter will be responsible for tonight?

The opposing midfielders are Ireland's Luke Marshall and Darren Cave versus Scotland's Duncan Taylor and England's Brad Barritt. That too will be a pivotal area.

There are considerable resources in reserve, but while Ulster have again opted for a six-two forwards-backs split – the safeguard being that Pienaar covers 10 while Trimble, Bowe or Payne can switch to centre – Sarries had opted for five-three, including kicking ace Charlie Hodgson.

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