Heineken Cup: McLaughlin prepared for dogfight
No unpleasant surprises or upsets with all of the big names included.
Ulster have named a 34-strong initial squad for Friday night’s Heineken Cup clash with Aironi at Ravenhill (7.30) with no injuries other than those to Paddy Wallace, Jared Payne and Declan Fitzpatrick.
With the unfortunate Payne currently back in his native New Zealand recuperating after surgery to his Achilles tendon, the arrival of Stefan Terblanche — his replacement from South Africa — leaves coach Brian McLaughlin able to choose a team pretty close to full strength.
No-one in the Ulster camp is trying to downplay the significance of Friday night’s game, or what they aim to take from it. Victory — with a bonus point for scoring four or more tries — is the only acceptable outcome and nobody is pretending otherwise.
But McLaughlin knows Ulster will have to earn any rewards.
“We’ve played Aironi the last two years in the Pro12 and in Europe as well and yes, they’re very difficult to break down,” he said.
“We’re going in with no illusions; we know exactly what we have to do in the next two games and that is win and win well.”
With that in mind and in view of the Italians’ forward aggression, captain Johann Muller is urging another big performance from the Ulster pack.
Muller said: “Against Clermont and Leicester we performed really well. Then against Glasgow we took a backward step.
“But I thought at the weekend (against Scarlets) there were a couple of really good ball-carries from really important guys in the team. I think we’re performing well, but I believe there’s still a lot more in this pack of forwards.
“We’re obviously coming to a really important part of the season right now, starting this weekend, and if we want to do well over the next couple of weeks that’s where it starts — up front.
“If the pack performs well then the whole team can perform well so obviously that puts a little bit of pressure on us in that department.”
The skipper was keen to highlight the fact that Aironi now have a much-improved squad for which reason they dare not be discounted or dismissed lightly.
“It’s not the Aironi of last year,” he warned. “They’re a quality side, they’ve got a couple of really good signings over the off-season and they’ve come close in the past.
“We know how tough it was last year when we scored the bonus try in the last couple of minutes so we’re expecting a real physical battle up front once again.
“We need to make sure we play clever against them and attack the right areas.”