Heineken Cup: Spence racing against time to be centre stage
Brian McLaughlin has named a 34-strong Ulster panel for Saturday afternoon’s Heineken Cup re-match with Aironi in Monza.
The Ulster coach’s initial squad — which will be trimmed to 15 starters and eight replacements on Friday — includes inside-centre Nevin Spence who was substituted in the second half of last Friday night’s 31-10 victory over the Italians at Ravenhill.
Following the final whistle the 21-year-old was described as being in pain after suffering a heavy blow to the sternum. Yesterday, however, he trained and Ulster will assess him today to see how he is after that run-out.
If Spence does not make it McLaughlin’s obvious options include deploying Ian Whitten or Paddy Jackson at 12.
Whitten – with two Ireland caps to his credit – has made 54 appearances for Ulster, most of them at centre. In the past three seasons he has played in seven Heineken Cup fixtures so he offers experience, too. And at 6ft 2in and 16st he certainly lacks nothing in terms of physicality.
But Jackson put his hand up on Friday night when he deputised for the injured Spence, underlining his case for inclusion by scoring a very good try.
“Nevin trained this morning (Tuesday) so if he has no after-effects today and tomorrow and trains on Thursday he should be okay,” said McLaughlin, who explained his options should Spence be out by adding: “You’ve got Ian Whitten and also Paddy Jackson after his performance on Friday.”
South African Stefan Terblanche can play in midfield, too.
With Tom Court available after starting on the bench at Ravenhill in keeping with the IRFU’s strict Player Management Programme, the Ulster pack should be at full strength for the second of the back-to-back Heineken matches with the Italians.
Court, Rory Best, John Afoa; Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy; Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Pedrie Wannenburg almost certainly will be the line-up of forwards.
With Aironi’s strength being up front, those numbered one to eight for Ulster are expecting another 80 minutes of no-prisoners-taken warfare. Importantly, they are in the mood to battle. Indeed, they are relishing the prospect.
“We thought our scrum was excellent,” was McLaughlin’s view of last Friday night. “Against Aironi (in the Pro12) we struggled a little bit early on in the season at set-piece so we’re pleased with our scrum and our line-out.”
He had figures to justify his optimism, too.
“We won all our scrums and lost one line-out so from that point of view we’re very pleased. Hopefully we’ll take that forward this week,” he said.
If he is upbeat, that is understandable. Ulster’s record against Aironi is played six, won the lot with that haul including bonus points in each of their three Heineken meetings. But his confidence is qualified by respect for the Italians and a warning as to the standard they are capable of.
“It will be exceptionally tough and we’ll just have to be very patient,” he said. “We know exactly what to expect; they’re very difficult to break down at home as Leicester found out and Biarritz found out to their cost last year.”
Leicester won 28-12 at Stadio Brianteo last month, without a bonus point. And last year Aironi stunned Biarritz by winning 28-27 at Stadio Luigi Zaffanella.
Ulster’s target is four points for winning plus a try-scoring bonus. In admitting that to be goal, McLaughlin conceded it will be difficult to achieve.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “It’s a difficult place to go. If we’re true to what we want, which is five points, we have to go there and make sure that we play to our full potential.”