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Ospreys now wary of fan-tastic Ravenhill

By Gavin Mairs

Ulster may currently lurch in the depths of despair, searching for their first win at Ravenhill since their opening Magners League game in September.

But the Neath/Swansea Ospreys will still be wary of their visit to Ravenhill tonight.

Ulster's only home win this season was against the Magners League champions on that opening weekend, but of more significance was Mark McCall's side's 43-7 rout of the Welsh region a year ago.

There have been good times, too, for the visitors, who racked up back-to-back wins in 2004 and 2005 and Ospreys coach Lyn Jones spoke after last Friday's rout at the Liberty Stadium of his affection for the Belfast ground.

" I love going there," said Jones. "It's a proper rugby ground with great support. It's a bit boisterous but it is everything you want.

"I would say it is the best place to go and play Celtic League rugby. The crowd really comes out and supports their team. They get behind them and make for a really good atmosphere. It's what you want. It's a funny thing to say but we really enjoy going up there."

Jones is not wrong about Ulster's support, which even in these dark days shows little sign of waning.

Around 250 travelled to Swansea last week and close to 12,000 are expected tonight.

Even more surprising was the e-mail I received on Tuesday informing me that the main stand had already been sold out for the Munster game on January 4 - just a day after the tickets went on sale.

No other club or province in the Celtic nations would receive such loyal support in the face of such a disastrous run of results.

It is on the other side of the whitewash that Ulster are judged, however, and once again tonight offers the opportunity to deliver a big performance against a top-class side at what is now a critical period of the season.

With just three wins from their last 11 games in all competitions, Ulster are no longer in the business of succeeding, they are in the business of surviving.

If Ulster, currently bottom of the Magners League after eight games, don't finish above Connacht, they face the frightening prospect of missing out on the Heineken Cup for the first time since the tournament's inception in 1995.

It is for that reason that caretaker coach Steve Williams has wielded his axe, once again not afraid to take tough decisions or look to the future when even his own his not certain.

It was a tough call to leave out Justin Fitzpatrick from the 22, just as he was set to win his 50th cap in the Heineken Cup and receive the 'Elite 50' award.

The situation was not helped by making the popular prop and a loyal servant available for interview earlier this week.

While there can be little room for emotion in this professional game, Fitzpatrick, having started every game this season, ironically misses out because he is too important to the side, given the lack of tighthead prop cover following Simon Best's heard condition.

Fitzpatrick is being rested for the crunch games against Leinster on Boxing Day and Munster on January 4 at a time when Ulster can't afford to see Connacht open up any kind of gap at the bottom of the Magners League table.

The decision to throw Niall O'Connor in at the deep end at out-half, one of seven changes to the side that lost in Swansea, is will be the eye-catching subplot tonight.

O'Connor showed glimpses of his potential during the World Cup when Paddy Wallace was in France and David Humphreys was injured.

It is on such nights that young players learn much about themselves. Still, it's hard not to look past another win for the visitors, for unlike Ulster, they are fighting for their Heineken Cup lives.

Belfast Telegraph


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