Belfast Telegraph

Wilson fancies French repeat for Ulster

By Michael Sadlier

There is considerable market value to his knowledge so, when the assessment is aired, there is an attentive audience.

“You’ve got to get a strong start to the game and in those first 20 minutes you want to ideally go points up.

“If you do that some of their individuals might start drifting (mentally) elsewhere and then the crowd will jeer them a bit if things aren’t going their way.

“Then if they do get a sniff of things and they do get their tails up they are a very difficult team to stop.”

Roger Wilson’s delivery is measured and if ever there was a time when his insight and experience are needed around the place then this is it. You see, he’s not only been there but, when it comes to winning in the Heineken Cup while over in France, he’s also done it as well.

With Ulster knowing that a bonus point win at Castres on Saturday will cast-iron guarantee them a Heineken Cup quarter-final at home, they have a man in their ranks who knows exactly what it is like to go to Stade Pierre Antoine for a final pool game needing a positive result in order to seal a last eight encounter in more preferable surroundings.

It was January two years ago when he was part of the Northampton Saints outfit who knuckled down at Castres and ultimately came away with a highly prized 23-12 result which also saw them finish the pool stages unbeaten.

Ironically the Saints then hosted and toasted Ulster at stadium:mk on a scorching day in Milton Keynes before dismissing Perpignan at the same venue and then they spectacularly lost the final |33-22 to Leinster after leading 22-6 at half-time — an outcome many believe Jim Mallinder’s side have yet to fully shake off.

Though that day at the Millennium Stadium is hardly a highlight for the 31-year-old, Wilson is quite prepared to revisit that particular 2011 trip to Castres — though the French club made sure they avenged the result when the sides were again drawn together in the following season’s pool — and use his reflections to bolster Ulster’s formidable looking challenge.

“Yeah, it was exactly the same situation, we qualified from the group, but we had to win the last game away from home to get the home quarter,” Wilson recalls.

“I think at that stage Castres hadn’t lost a game all season and they’re a very proud team at home.

“I guess they’re what you might call traditionally French in that they don’t travel particularly well, but in front of their home support they want to do very well and perform for the crowd.

“I don’t think it will be any different this weekend and I think they’ll pick close to their full strength side and they’ll want to keep that home momentum going and take them into the Top 14, though I think Castres can possibly still do something as well if results go their way,” he reckons.

It is fortunate for Ulster that they have a more than adequate replacement in Wilson for the crocked Nick Williams, even though Wilson’s game is much more about muscular grafting and consistency than pure obliteration of close-in tacklers.

Mind you, without Williams’ destructive ball-carrying there does seem to be a certain lack of that extra physicality which will be needed to down Castres’ colours for the second time after Ulster got maximum points from seeing them off 41-17 at Ravenhill back in October in their opening Pool Four game.

Back then, Wilson was just taking the first steps in his comeback to Ulster colours after a severe hamstring tear had hampered last summer’s return to Belfast for pre-season after he had spent four years further honing his craft at Franklin’s Gardens.

And then, as he gradually began to build his fitness, the emergence of Williams as one of Mark Anscombe’s stellar signings left Wilson, who will make his 128th appearance on Saturday afternoon, somewhat overshadowed with the Kiwi clearly more effective at number eight rather than blindside flanker.

Still, when required, Wilson can bring so much big game experience to the table and ironically, on Saturday he could be up against last season’s first choice number eight at Ravenhill, a certain Pedrie Wannenburg.

“In terms of their actual game plan it’s very similar to what we faced at Northampton as they’ve got a big strong pack and a strong scrum,” said Wilson.

“It’s going to be a big effort for the forwards this week, but if we can nullify them in that area it will go a long way to winning the game.

“They’re very much a momentum side, but that’s down to us. We want to strangle them and not give them any momentum,” he stressed.

He acknowledges that Ulster are hardly togging out in southern France at anything close to full strength, thanks to a mounting injury list, but his focus at what must be achieved burns as brightly as ever.

“We’re going all out for this,” Wilson states.

“We’re desperate to win this game, absolutely desperate to secure the home quarter-final.

“We know what it will mean to us and the fans and I think we can certainly do that.”

A big performance is required and the stage now awaits.

Belfast Telegraph


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