No Best, but Mac has the leaders to finish the job
There is an adage in sport that if it isn’t broken it doesn’t need fixing.
Clearly Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin adheres to that philosophy, for with his side expected to march into the last eight of the Heineken Cup for the first time in 12 years by beating Aironi in Italy this afternoon, the only changes to the side which pipped Biarritz Olympique 9-6 a week ago at Ravenhill to earn this rare opportunity are two of the injury-enforced variety.
Neither came as any surprise for tighthead BJ Botha was a non-starter from the moment he suffered an elbow ligaments injury in the closing stages of last weekend’s hard-fought match with the French.
Indeed, as the Ulster party flew out to Parma yesterday morning, Botha was in hospital undergoing exploratory surgery to ascertain the exact nature and extent of his injury.
Nor, if truth be told, was the loss of the burly Springbok’s front row colleague and captain, Rory Best, unexpected either. On Wednesday the hooker admitted that the chances of him making it after ‘popping’ rib cage cartilage late on against Biarritz was “less than 50-50”. And when both Nigel Brady and Andi Kyriacou both turned up at Belfast International Airport yesterday morning, it was obvious that Best had not won his race to be fit for Ulster’s biggest match since 1999.
Best had prepared the supporters for the inevitable by endorsing his understudies.
“The squad is good enough so we don’t need to take any risks,” was his midweek assessment. Thus Brady starts, with Kyriacou occupying the resultant vacancy on the bench.
In Best’s absence former South African skipper, Johann Muller, leads the side, which is apt for it is with just such big match occasions in mind that he and fellow-countrymen Ruan Pienaar and Pedrie Wannenburg were recruited last summer.
That hefty investment is set to bear fruit for by qualifying for the knock-out stages Ulster stand to benefit by at least £500,000.
Botha’s number three jersey will be worn by Declan Fitzpatrick,
with Bryan Young and Jerry Cronin — from opposite ends of the professional rugby experience scale — providing the prop cover.
Other than those enforced changes the side is the same as that which performed so heroically — and, vitally, with such discipline — last Saturday afternoon.
In stark contrast Aironi do need substantial repair work following last weekend's 55-16 thumping by Bath who scored eight tries in that rout at the Rec. And they have made nine changes plus three positional switches to their starting line-up.
Surprisingly, given that Matt Bahanan scored four tries against him, Matteo Pratichetti is not one of them. He is retained in the same left wing slot as last week.
In the circumstances Andrew Trimble may well fancy his chances provided his forward and inside colleagues provide him with ball.
Aironi’s much-changed line-up see Pablo Canavosio switch from scrum-half to the wing, with Michael Wilson taking over immediately behind the pack and Gilberto Pavan moving from wide right to midfield where he now partners Rodd Penney who continues at 13.
Fly-half James Marshall, the New Zealander who kicked 11 of the Italians’ 16 points against Bath, is deemed worthy of retention.
Aironi coach, Welshman Rowland Phillips, has dispensed with seven of his eight forwards including all of the front and second row men. Salvatore Perugini, Luigi Farraro and Leo Gamboa giving way to Matias Aguero, Fabio Ongaro and Fabio Staibano.
Out of the engine-room go Joshua Furno and former Ulster player Carlo Del Fava and in come Marco Bortolami and fit-again captain Quintin Geldenhuys.
Two of last weekend’s three back row forwards have been left out, with Vickus Liebenberg and Jaco Erasmus joining the sole survivor of the Rec wreckage, Josh Sole, who switches from six to No 8.
A week ago Biarritz warned Ulster that Aironi’s personnel when they play at home vary greatly from those who represent them on the road. They weren’t kidding.
Following last week’s eight-try mauling by Bath, today’s hosts’ coach said: “We expect Aironi to be better than that.”
Tellingly, he added: “But in other respects, as a group, it's been really positive. It just took a very strong Bath side to give us a reality check.”