Ulster will not be left under the weather
The heat was on Ulster yesterday to get themselves to the West Country for this afternoon’s scheduled Heineken Cup date with Bath.
Finally, after a real sweat, they managed to solve the problem, saving themselves what almost certainly would have been a hefty fine for non-fulfillment of a fixture being screened live by Sky Sports.
With Bath confident about having met the tournament organisers’ rules with regard to ensuring a playable pitch, the pressure was on snow-bound Ulster to turn up or face the consequences.
Worst case scenario was a fine of just over £42,000.
The Recreation Ground pitch has been under a protective tent beneath which heaters have been blowing a stream of warm air.
But with snow having closed Belfast International, Belfast City (George Best) and Derry City airports, Ulster were up against it in trying to get there to play the fixture.
Yesterday morning a spokesperson for Ulster Rugby confirmed: “The onus is on us to ensure that we can travel. We are required to make all possible efforts to ensure that the team is in Bath for the game.”
Ulster had chartered a plane which was to have flown in from Plymouth to Belfast International at lunch-time yesterday. But with the airport at Aldergrove closed, they ended up travelling by coach to Dublin from where they flew last night.
Even then there were no guarantees that today’s match would go ahead as scheduled, for Bath took the unusual precaution of publishing details of alternative arrangements.
These read: “If Ulster make it to Bath but late, the game will be played at some stage over the weekend as soon as practically possible.
“If Ulster make it and the pitch is playable but there are serious concerns over crowd safety, the game should be played behind closed doors.
“If Ulster make it but our pitch is not playable then we would move to an alternative venue for Sunday (this is likely to be Llanelli).”
Not that Ulster’s problems were confined to dealing with the logistical difficulties caused by the bleak mid-winter white-out.
Blindside flanker Stephen Fer
ris — last week’s man of the match — is out of the team for the second of the back to back pairings with Bath at The Rec after picking up a leg injury in training.
His unavailability sees a much-changed back row in which Pedrie Wannenburg is the sole survivor — and he has moved from No 8 to blindside.
Fellow-South African Robbie Diack fills the space vacated by Wannenburg, leaving Willie Faloon to wear the number seven jersey with Chris Henry dropping down to the bench.
Other than that it’s as you were a week ago.
Meanwhile, a week after Olly Barkley clocked up his 200th appearance for Bath, lock forward Danny Grewcock — another of the club’s English internationals — reaches that milestone today.
Back in January when Ulster and Bath met in the Heineken Cup at the same venue, Grewcock was sent off for stamping on Ferris. Bath welcome back South African fly-half Butch James for what will be his first appearance of the season after being injured during the summer’s Tri-Nations.
They also have England midfielder Shontayne Hape back in the side after he missed out last week due to the birth of his third child.
New Zealand-born Hape starts alongside Barkley in a line-up which confirms Bath’s intention to attack, exactly as predicted earlier this week by Ulster captain Johann Muller.
Bath: Jack Cuthbert; Matt Carraro, Olly Barkley, Shontayne Hape, Matt Banahan,; Butch James, Michael Claassens (captain); David Flatman, Lee Mears, David Wilson; Stuart Hooper, Danny Grewcock; Andy Beattie, Lewis Moody, Simon Taylor. Replacements: Pieter Dixon, David Barnes, Duncan Bell, Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, Ben Skirving, Mark McMillan, Sam Vesty, Nick Abendanon.
Ulster: Adam D'Arcy; Andrew Trimble, Nevin Spence, Paddy Wallace, Simon Danielli; Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Nigel Brady, BJ Botha; Johann Muller (captain), Dan Tuohy, Pedrie Wannenburg, Willie Faloon, Robbie Diack. Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Paddy McAllister, Bryan Young, Tim Barker, Chris Henry, Paul Marshall, Ian Whitten, Jamie Smith.