Heineken Cup: Ulster can edge closer to Euro jackpot
Today, finally, Ulster have the opportunity for which their players and supporters have waited since 1999.
A Heineken Cup quarter-final place — at Ravenhill — beckons.
This time their fate is in their own hands. This afternoon they are at home and just three points shy of their group’s leaders in the penultimate match with inclusion in the last eight for the first time in 12 years the prize.
The kudos for achieving that cannot be calculated, but in purely monetary terms qualification is worth £500,000.
Standing between Ulster and attainment of those goals are Biarritz and, if they beat today’s French guests, Italian side Aironi to whom Brian McLaughlin’s men must travel next weekend for their final Pool 4 fixture.
The respective records of today’s Ravenhill protagonists show the visitors in a rather better light than the hosts.
Biarritz Olympique have reached the competition’s quarter-finals on seven occasions, progressed to the semis four times and been finalists twice.
Ulster’s somewhat more modest record is quarter-finalists only once — 1999 — when they made it to the last four and then to the final itself.
The difference between the sides is that on the one occasion Ulster reached the final, they won it. Biarritz, for all their protracted runs, have never seen one through to a positive conclusion.
That irks them and the fact that the second of their two defeats in finals came as recently as last May means the wounds are still raw. Their President, Serge Blanco, the iconic French full-back of the 1980s, is on record as saying that the title of European champions is the one Biarritz crave most.
Thus they are in Belfast on a mission, for as Ulster coach McLaughlin put it: “Be under no illusions, they’ve come over here in the hope of topping the group.
“Like ourselves, they’re looking for a home quarter-finals so we’re expecting them to come out all guns blazing.
“That’s the challenge; we’ve got to put them away.”
With that goal in mind Ulster have given a vote of confidence to the side which beat Treviso in the Magners League at Ravenhill last Friday.
There are only two changes to the starting line-up, with Stephen Ferris named on the blindside flank and Dan Tuohy chosen to partner Johann Muller in the second row.
The inclusion of Ferris means Chris Henry reverts to the eight-man bench in a move that represents clever forward-planning on McLaughlin’s part. Henry’s versatility in being able to play at six, seven or eight is a three-way plus.
Ulster can deploy him where they feel the back row need to be greatest and his introduction at the right moment in a match McLaughlin has said “is going to be so tight” could be crucial.
Tuohy’s inclusion — which sees Tim Barker named as the replacement lock — could be key, too. It has been a big week for Tuohy, who has been buzzing since signing a two-year contract extension which will keep him at Ravenhill until 2013.
“Delighted,” was Tuohy’s reaction after putting pen to paper at the start of the week. “It’s good to have it sorted out because it’s what I wanted and it leaves me able to concentrate on playing.”
Behind the scrum it’s just as you were with all seven Ulster backs retained en masse following last weekend’s victory.
While Ulster beat Treviso 32-6 last Friday night, scoring four first-half tries in the process, Biarritz trumped that the following day by trouncing Agen 65-22 and touching down 10 times at Parc des Sports Aguiléra.
Away from that citadel, however, their record is a lot less impressive, which is where Ulster will take heart.
Already this season Biarritz have lost five times on opponents’ pitches so Ulster will hope to follow the example of Perpignan, Racing Metro 92, Montpellier, Toulon and Aironi whose Heineken Cup win on December 11 re-opened a door which, in his heart of hearts, Brian McLaughlin must have feared had closed for good.
Biarritz do not always travel well but any side including players like front row warriors Benoît August and Sylvain Marconnet, lock and skipper JérômeThion and the mighty Imanol Harinorduquy in their pack deserves the utmost respect.
And with half-backs of the calibre and experience of Dimitri Yachvilli and Damien Traille they know all about managing the pace and pattern of a game.
It has the makings of a memorable afternoon.
Meanwhile, supporters are asked to avoid parking in the immediate vicinity of the Ravenhill Grounds and instead avail of the free park and ride facilities on offer at Pirrie Park and along the Montgomery Road, both just a short walk from the ground.