RaboDirect Pro12: Andi puts best foot forward
Andi Kyriacou has seized the chance provided by Rory Best’s World Cup duties for Ireland.
The Liverpool-born hooker with a scouse accent and Greek surname has, in the vernacular, ‘stepped up’, starting in the first four of Ulster’s first five RaboDirect Pro12 fixtures and now recalled after being named as a replacement a week ago.
Whilst his form since the start of the season has been impressive, even in Best’s absence Kyriacou does not take inclusion for granted.
That’s understandable, for there is fierce competition for the Ulster number two jersey at the moment, witness the fact that when, on Tuesday, Brian McLaughlin named his extended squad for tonight’s RaboDirect Pro12 clash with Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill (7.05) it included four hookers, his rivals for the vacancy being Nigel Brady, Ireland Under 20s captain Niall Annett and up-and-coming Academy prospect John Burns.
He modestly downplays his form and, in particular, the quality of his line-out throw.
“The way that pre-season went with Nigel having his neck problem and Niall being away with the Under 20s and rolling his ankle, it was mainly myself and young Burnsy at line-out, so I was able to get a lot of work done on the new line-out that we’ve brought in.
“There’s no substitute for that and it has sort of kicked on from there,” is his explanation. “Hopefully I can maintain that.
“It’s vitally important that, as forwards, we provide a good solid set piece for what is an exciting back line. We want to see those guys play.”
With Treviso able to include two of those who have returned after Italy’s World Cup exit — tight-head starter Lorenzo Cittadini and centre Alberto Sgarbi who is on the bench — Kyriacou is expecting a hard night’s work.
“Italian sides are always physical. You’ll not see their forwards stepping back too often. They’re very proud,” he says.
“As an eight we’ve got to make sure that we’re ready to face these guys. As a pack it’s vital that we turn up.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be bullied or taken out by some of the wise old heads Italian sides usually have.”
If Treviso are proud, so too are Ulster and never having lost to Italian opponents they start as clear favourites.
“Kiss of death, that,” Kyriacou smiles, before pointing to the fact that Ulster now have players who have been together long enough to know each other well.
“The bulk of the lads have been here now for two or three years and the lads who have come in have fitted in really quickly.
“The likes of Dan (Tuohy) and Decie (Declan Fitzpatrick) and Chrissie (Henry) have been here a long time now and it’s invaluable having that solid core of players,” said the affable hooker whose restoration ahead of Brady for tonight’s clash is one of three changes in the pack.
The others see Tim Barker partner Tuohy in the engine-room — Lewis Stevenson drops to the bench to facilitate that — and openside Mike McComish getting his first competitive start for Ulster having been preferred to Willie Faloon on this occasion.
Behind the pack Ulster welcome back Ian Humphreys, Darren Cave and Jared Payne following their recoveries from shoulder, hamstring and dead leg
injuries respectively. Out-half Humphreys replaces Paddy Jackson, Cave returns to the centre where Nevin Spence moves from 13 to 12 with Luke Marshall stepping down and Payne takes over from Adam D’Arcy at full-back for what will be the talented Kiwi’s third start since enlisting.
Once again young prop Kyle McCall is on the bench and not having been deployed last weekend against NG Dragons, his hope now is to make his debut tonight in front of a home audience.
After back-to-back defeats in Wales, coach Brian McLaughlin knows the importance of a win going into a two-week cessation in Pro12 hostilities.
“Over the last few weeks we’ve been very disappointed. Last season and early this season our youth players have really done us proud but I think against the Ospreys and the Dragons it was maybe just a bridge too far.
“But there is no doubt the young players are a talented bunch and the last few weeks has been a great learning experience for them,” is his positive spin on those two successive defeats.
Ulster: J Payne; C Gilroy, D Cave, N Spence, I Whitten; I Humphreys, P Marshall; D Fitzpatrick, A Kyriacou, J Cronin, T Barker, D Tuohy, P Wannenburg, M McComish, C Henry (c). Replacements: N Brady, K McCall, A Macklin, L Stevenson, R Diack, I Porter, P Jackson, A D’Arcy.
Treviso: L Nitoglia; T Iannone, Ezio Galon, Luca Morisi, B Williams; K Burton, T Botes; M Rizzo, E Ceccato, L Cittadini; 4 A Pavanello (c), V Bernabò; F Minto, B Vermaak, M Filippucci. Replacements: D Vidal, M Muccignat, C Fazzari, G Padrò, M Vosawai, W De Waal, A Sgarbi, S Picone.