RaboDirect Pro12: Ulster on happy hunting ground
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin refuses to dwell on his side’s 100 per cent record against Aironi.
They met four times last season, with Ulster winning each time.
On Saturday (2pm UK time) the Italians once again provide the RaboDirect PRO12 opposition, this time at Stadio Zaffanella.
It’s a happy hunting ground for Ulster; 12 months ago they won there in the former Magners League, 22-15 being the margin.
They followed that up with a resounding, bonus point-clinching 43-6 Heineken Cup Pool-stage triumph which booked their place in the quarter-finals, the only downside to that being the knee injury suffered by Stephen Ferris.
That sidelined him for seven months.
So with their record at the Viadana venue being played two, won two, Ulster should travel to north Italy in good heart.
Yet despite the weight of history in his side’s favour, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin remains hugely respectful of Aironi.
He knows what to expect from the Italians, namely physical opposition with an emphasis on the importance of set piece play.
That being the case, McLaughlin knows his men must hold their own in the scrum and line-out this weekend.
Significantly his side performed rather impressively in those key areas against Glasgow Warriors ar Ravenhill last Friday night.
“We lost two line-outs and one scrum — which was probably our best one of the game — when our communication got a little bit messed up. We just got twisted and got it turned over towards the end.
“But our set piece is improving well and I’m very happy with how it’s progressing, though we’ll get a huge test of where exactly we are when we arrive in Italy this weekend,” was McLaughlin’s summary.
With his team going so well in that opening match, McLaughlin made only one substitution against Glasgow, withdrawing hooker Andi Kyriacou and introducing Nigel Brady for the final 13 minutes.
Even then it wasn’t a tactical decision or one prompted by any injury concern.
McLaughlin explained: “It was fairly straightforward; we had to get Nigel on the pitch because with Andi’s situation at the moment — his wife is expecting at any second — we don’t know whether he is going to be available as far as this weekend is concerned.”
Kyriacou’s all-round game — and his line-out throwing in particular — against Glasgow was a huge plus and if domestic circumstances rule him out, then that will certainly impact on the preliminary squad of 28.
Indeed, in reality, it is already only 27-strong for although prop Callum Black — recruited during the summer from Worcester Warriors — is named in the squad a neck injury means he will not be playing at Stadio Zaffanella on Saturday.
With USA-born — but Irish-qualified — Black definitely out and Kyriacou doubtful, Ulster will be relieved that the news on another front row warrior, Declan Fitzpatrick, is much better.
McLaughlin said: “Declan came through training yesterday and today and we’re very hopeful that he’ll be available for the weekend if there’s no reaction.”
Former Auckland Blues star Jared Payne is expected to make his Ulster debut against Cardiff on September 16 at Ravenhill.
The versatile 25-year-old who can play centre, wing or full-back, will spend the next few days getting to know his new colleagues.
Although he is not included in the Ulster squad for Saturday’s Rabodirect Pro12 date with Aironi in northern Italy, Payne will travel with the team as part of his bedding in.