Heineken Cup: Humphreys out, Jackson in
Ulster out-half Ian Humphreys is expected to be dropped from the Ulster side to face Edinburgh in today’s Heineken Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium (5.45).
And the signs are that openside Chris Henry has lost his fight to shake off the ankle injury he picked up a week ago against Leinster.
Willie Faloon is on stand-by to deputise at number seven, with Ireland Under-20s captain Paddy Jackson expected to continue at stand-off, the position he has occupied for each of the past two PRO12 matches, both of which ended in defeat.
Humphreys, whose older brother David captained Ulster when they won the European Cup 13 years ago and now is the province’s Director of Rugby, is expected to be omitted when coach Brian McLaughlin names his 15 starters and eight replacements today.
The writing has been on the wall for Humphreys — who celebrated his 30th birthday on Tuesday — since Ulster’s quarter-final victory over Munster at Thomond Park.
For although he dropped a crucial 31st minute goal which made the score 19-0 in Ulster’s favour that afternoon, far more significant was the fact that Ulster’s goal-kicking responsibilities once more were given to Humphreys’ half-back partner, Ruan Pienaar.
The South African World Cup winner rose to the occasion by banging over four glorious penalties as well as converting Craig Gilroy’s outstanding try. Pienaar’s excellence off the tee meant the biggest reason for including Humphreys had gone.
Jackson’s inclusion would not be totally unexpected; he was Ulster’s stand-off in their pre-Christmas Heineken Cup romps against Aironi.
But following those victories, four months elapsed before he was deployed again.
When finally the call came, the youngster marked his return by donating 16 of Ulster’s points — three penalties and a try which he also converted — in their 26-21 defeat by Connacht in Galway a fortnight ago, following which he was retained for last Friday night’s Ravenhill clash with Leinster.
Again what was significant that night was the fact that he was included at the top table for the post-match press conference, a gesture which provided clear evidence that he had impressed the management team.
To the suspicion that the unfortunate Henry — who has been outstanding for Ulster this season — won’t make it and the speculation that Humphreys has been axed, add the suspension which has sidelined tight-head John Afoa, all of which means three changes to the side which shone in Limerick. Meanwhile Ulster captain Johann Muller has admitted that achievement in reaching the semi-finals of the biggest tournament in club rugby north of the equator had surpassed even his expectations.
My question to him was: “When you arrived here two years ago could you have envisaged yourself in a situation where Ulster would be going into a semi-final of the European Cup as favourites?”
The big South African answered: “Probably not. I always knew it was going to happen but I didn’t expect it this quickly.”
Elaborating, he continued: “Obviously when Brian (McLaughlin) got this team together three years ago they had a vision and they had a plan.
“I was just one of the little steps in that plan to get where we want to be,” was the modest assessment of the man who will lead Ulster in their biggest match since 1999.
His belief is that the magnitude of the occasion and the prize on offer will serve to fire Ulster rather than intimidate them. He is convinced that they are ready to take the next step forward.
“It’s the biggest game for 13 years for this club and probably the biggest game that a lot of these guys have ever played in,” he continued.
“The excitement is right up there; everybody is looking forward to it.”
Having featured in huge matches in his native South Africa, he is in a position to make comparisons. This, Muller insisted, is of similar standard and intensity.
“I’ve won a Currie Cup final and played in a Super 14 final — which we lost in the 82nd minute — and this is right up with that,” he said.