With Ulster’s season now entering the crucial stage, their options for Friday night’s Magners League date with Aironi at Ravenhill have been boosted by the return of Tom Court and Paddy Wallace.
The international duo, who were on Irish bench duty for Sunday’s 21-18 win against Scotland at Murrayfield, have been released to play for their province in order to gain much-needed game time.
In naming a 30-strong extended squad, which will be culled to 23 tomorrow, coach Brian McLaughlin was delighted to include Court and Wallace alongside those who played so magnificently in Ulster’s 32-13 rout of Cardiff Blues last Friday night.
He was optimistic, too, that Declan Fitzpatrick and Craig Gilroy will be fit for selection should he choose to deploy them.
While he agreed that it is hard to change a winning team, McLaughlin explained: “These are internationals coming back in and if you’re offered Paddy Wallace and Tom Court you’d take it with open arms.
“Neither player has let us down this season. They always add something to us and we’re looking forward to having them back.”
Ulster will not rest any of their top guns against the Italians who are bottom of the Magners League having failed to win a match in this, their first campaign.
McLaughlin will avoid the temptation to soft-pedal against opponents Ulster have already beaten three times this season, once in the Magners League and home and away in the Heineken Cup, in which they banked a try-scoring bonus point on each occasion.
With Munster enjoying an 11-point lead in the Magners League race and odds-on for a top four finish, Ospreys, Leinster, Scarlets, Cardiff and Ulster are scrapping it out for the other three places. Only six points separate that quintet, so any bonuses picked up at this stage could prove vital.
So make no mistake; McLaughlin’s objective on Friday is victory worth a maximum haul of five points.
Typically, though, he was diplomacy personified in his assessment of Aironi.
“We’re under no illusions. You only have to look at their game last week; Aironi are a very difficult side to beat,” he said.
“Munster last week struggled against them — 20-10 there. The week before Leinster struggled dramatically. I think with five minutes to go it was something like 17-13, so they’re not an easy side to play against.
“We know that, but on Friday night the major emphasis has to be on us, it has to be on how we perform.
“We put a new benchmark down last week and it’s important that we live up to that every time we play.”
“The bonus point for us is always the icing on the cake. We’ll be hoping to get the bonus point, there’s no doubt, but to start off with we’ll be going out very simply and basically to win the game.”
With the weather forecast being for another dry night, Ulster once again will seek to maximise conditions suited to running rugby, just as they did against Cardiff. McLaughlin was keen to highlight that aspiration.
“Last Friday we showed how well we can play and showed the way we want to play. Hopefully we’ll get the conditions that allow us to do that this Friday,” he said.
Ulster Squad for game against Aironi at Ravenhill on Friday March 4 (7.05pm).
FORWARDS: Jerry Cronin, Declan Fitzpatrick, Paddy McAllister, Bryan Young, Tom Court, Nigel Brady, Andi Kyriacou, Neil McComb, Johann Muller, Tim Barker, Pedrie Wannenburg, TJ Anderson, Willie Faloon, Chris Henry, Robbie Diack.
BACKS: Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys, Niall O'Connor, Paddy Wallace, Ian Whitten, Nevin Spence, Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Simon Danielli, Tommy Seymour, Craig Gilroy, Jamie Smith, Adam D'Arcy.