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Big challenge: Willie Anderson knows Ulster ‘A’ face a difficult task against Bedford

Big challenge: Willie Anderson knows Ulster ‘A’ face a difficult task against Bedford

Big challenge: Willie Anderson knows Ulster ‘A’ face a difficult task against Bedford

Any Ulster team making knockout rugby these days is clearly something to be celebrated.

And so the 'A' side have found themselves in a rather more prominent place than usual for today's British and Irish Cup quarter-final at Bedford Blues (kick-off 3pm).

It would be fitting, too, if Ulster could make the last-four in this the final season of the unheralded competition, as this would sit well with the notion that the province's emerging crop of players can show they have the quality to step up.

It would also emulate the last time they came one game away from the final back in 2010 during the competition's debut campaign.

Not that visiting Goldington Road is actually expected to yield a victory for the visitors against a strong and in-form side who play together every week - Bedford are third in the English Championship - but the hope is that Ulster's blend of experience and youth will possess the belief to turn the tables in this one-off game.

Head coach Kieran Campbell and his assistant Willie Anderson are also confident that making last year's quarter-final - when Munster turned them over - will count for something when Ross Kane leads the side out today.

The ideal scenario was, of course, to have secured this tie at home but, even though Ulster topped Pool Five, they just fell short of gathering up enough points to bring the game here.

So now Ulster have to progress the hard way and, even if they do triumph at Bedford, they are still away for the semi-final against the winners of Ealing - coached by former Ulster 'A' chief Alex Codling - and Cornish Pirates.

Still, Ulster go with a decent side with Ireland U20s players Angus Kernohan, Mattie Dalton, Angus Curtis, Mattie Agnew, Tom O'Toole, James Hume and Jonny Stewart all part of the squad with the experienced spine provided by lock Pete Browne, flanker Clive Ross and out-half Peter Nelson.

"We have to perform to our utmost," said Anderson, issuing a rallying call for today.

"We have to fight for everything and that's what you want to instil in any team, it's like the Alex Ferguson thing, you don't give up until the last second.

"It's going to be a massive challenge. We've a lot of young fellas and then Peter (Browne) and Clive (Ross) who have brought tremendous knowledge of what we need to do in games, as well as keeping our heads."

Much has also been made regarding the growth in the side's sense of culture and identity, areas which normally would not have been given huge investment in previous years of notable underachievement.

"That's vital too," said Anderson, whose mantra is very much to play for the shirt.

"That has been excellent and given us a real drive."

Ulster also, rather encouragingly, come into this game off the back of beating current B&I Cup holders Munster 'A' in a friendly played out in Banbridge.

"I can see that our guys are on the way forward and that (beating Munster 'A') was a great test for us," said Anderson.

"That game will actually be similar to what we're going to face at Bedford.

"We respect Bedford, they're third in their league and they're going well but I've tremendous confidence (in our team)."

Selection-wise, Ulster have mustered as much power up front as they can with second-row Dalton and hooker Adam McBurney knowing they must be on their game.

And with Ross, Marcus Rea and Greg Jones making up the back-row, the onus has to be on strength and confrontation and, tellingly, the bench has a five-two split in favour of forwards.

Scrum-half Dave Shanahan will need to be at his best both with his distribution and ability to snipe and, outside him, Nelson has to be provided with a decent platform.

They do have a useful-looking midfield in Curtis and Callum Patterson and there is no doubting the abilities of the back-three where Kernohan, Aaron Cairns and full-back Jack Owens like nothing better than attacking space.

As for what happens next season, Anderson is hopeful that some competitive structure will be in place to succeed the B&I Cup.

"I would be delighted if we got into a sort of Celtic League with the Welsh and the Scottish," Anderson explained.

"We need to have another layer (for professional players)."

Six of the squad have been here before when Munster beat them 26-3 at the same stage last year and that, in itself, will have added motivation for those players to take Ulster to the last-four.

Even so, it will be a mammoth achievement to take Bedford's scalp in their own backyard.

Meanwhile, there are three Ulster clubs in action in the AIL with, in 2A, top-four-chasing City of Armagh hosting Blackrock while, in 2B, Belfast Harlequins are at home to Skerries and City of Derry, who look odds-on to be relegated, entertain Sundays Well.

Ulster 'A': J Owens, A Kernohan, C Patterson, A Curtis, A Cairns, P Nelson, D Shanahan; T O'Hagan, A McBurney, R Kane (capt), M Dalton, P Browne, Marcus Rea, C Ross, G Jones

Subs: A Clarke, E O'Sullivan, T O'Toole, J Regan, M Agnew, J Stewart, J Hume

Belfast Telegraph


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