Tyrone Howe: Ulster in great shape for tilt at Heineken Cup glory
There's nothing quite like European rugby. It provided one of the greatest of all Ulster sporting memories in 1999 and the past two seasons, coupled with the victories of the last six weeks, have Ulster supporters salivating.
Thanks to the attacking nous of Ian Humphreys and his team mates, London Irish managed to turn over Northampton Saints at the weekend.
This leaves Ulster as the only unbeaten team in Northern Hemisphere domestic rugby, a fact that loads confidence, expectation and pressure on the players in equal amounts.
It comes as no surprise, then, that for many, Ulster pose a real and present danger and are contenders for the Heineken Cup.
How things have changed, and Ulster have excelled at learning lessons from previous experiences. Having done so well to get to the quarter-finals two seasons ago, the team made a few mistakes and fell away in the final quarter to Northampton Saints, only to bounce back with almost the complete fairytale last season.
There was absolutely no disgrace in losing to Leinster in the final, but it will have rankled that the team did not play close to their potential.
The aim for this season must surely be to get back into that final and this time to be able to call upon the recent memory of having been there before.
Location shouldn’t really make any difference to motivation, but nonetheless, the fact that the final takes place at the Aviva Stadium adds another layer of incentive.
The victory over Connacht was the ideal warm-up. To ‘nil’ the opposition is always an achievement to be proud of and, while there will always be the slight error from time to time, under Jonny Bell’s stewardship Ulster’s defence has been a bit like him — tight!
Eric Elwood’s men are extremely difficult to break down and it was somewhat ironic that Ulster’s tries actually resulted from much harder chances than the opportunities that went abegging.
While the job was done, there will have been an air of frustration to have created so much but not to have been effective enough to secure the bonus point.
This sub-optimal performance will focus the minds in preparation for this Friday, as the players will know that they may not get as many chances seven days on.
The biggest issue in selection is whether man mountain Nick Williams will be fit enough to take the pitch. He has been the outstanding player of Ulster’s campaign so far.
If our worst fears are realised, his absence may provide the biggest challenge of all for his Ulster team mates.
Williams has probably done twice as much ball carrying as any other player and helped to establish a solid platform for Ulster’s attack.
When someone is consistently that good, you can’t help but start to rely on him. Without Williams, others will have to front up, and whatever the make-up of the back row will be, it is time for players like Stephen Ferris to step up and produce a five star display.
Should Williams not make it, the fillip is that Ruan Pienaar is back from international duty.
While there will obviously be an element of settling back into the team, he is in great shape and has lots of rugby under his belt. This is important as Castres will be decent opposition.
They are doing well in the Top 14, their two standout players being his opposite number and countryman, South African scrumhalf Rory Kockott, who directs, controls and kicks points, and big ball carrier Joe Tekori, who is very much their ‘go to man’ at number eight.
On the upside, Castres have a poor away record and are not a major try-scoring side.
The vast majority of their points come from penalties through applied pressure or opposition mistakes.
Therefore I expect that Ulster may want to play more of a territorial game in order to starve Castres of points-scoring opportunities.
It could be quite a scrap and the possible absence of Williams may render a bonus point unlikely, but I fully expect a home win and this year’s adventure to begin in earnest.