Heineken Cup: McLaughlin makes big call for crunch clash
Ireland's Tom Court omitted, the unlucky Paul Marshall ousted and newcomer Stefan Terblanche on the bench rather than in the starting line-up.
Those were the eyebrow-raising choices when Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin named his team and replacements for tonight’s crucial Heineken Cup Pool 4 showdown with Aironi at Ravenhill (7.30pm).
Court — a Grand Slam-winning prop with 24 Irish caps in his cupboard — makes way on the loose-head side of the scrum for 22-year-old Paddy McAllister.
Big call that, given the Italians’ reputation as scrummagers.
McLaughlin’s explanation was: “It was important for Paddy McAllister’s development to start in a match at this level. And it means we have the option to bring a quality player like Tom on if we need to.”
Pienaar’s inclusion at scrum-half is at the expense of Marshall, who finds himself on the replacements bench despite a series of outstanding performances in the past month during the South African’s absence. That cannot have been an easy decision for McLaughlin and the Ulster management team.
The coach explained the verdict on that one by saying: “Paul is a terrific player and has proved himself over the past few weeks.
“But Ruan was the Magner’s League Player of the Year last season so he deserves a chance. His match time has been limited so it will be good for him to get some time on the pitch.
“We now have two quality scrum-halves.”
Pienaar’s two-year contract with Ulster expires at the end of this season and tonight’s inclusion at number nine rather than 21 confirms his status as first-choice pivot. And with the 2007 World Cup winner having publicly stated his desire to remain at Ravenhill, his inclusion tonight could help lubricate negotiations on that front.
But unlike Pienaar who starts, his fellow-South African Terblanche is kept on the bench, with Adam D’Arcy retained at number 15.
The former Springbok’s inclusion in the 23-man group comes as no surprise, not least because he ticks three boxes by virtue of his ability to cover full-back, wing and centre.
“He’s a true professional and will add a great deal to the team in terms of his experience. He’s an international player and has played for the Ospreys in Europe so he will be comfortable if he comes on,” was McLaughlin’s take on that call.
Elsewhere on the bench, Andi Kyriacou will provide cover at hooker, with Nigel Brady picking up the tab for that decision.