RaboDirect Pro12: Spence added to Ulster’s midfield casualty list
Ulster have been dealt another major blow ahead of a month of pivotal games in both the PRO12 League and Heineken Cup as centre Nevin Spence will be out of action for at least the next four weeks after sustaining an ankle injury in last Saturday’s European win over Aironi.
With Paddy Wallace and Luke Marshall also confined to the sidelines by injury until next month, news that 21-year-old Spence has suffered ankle joint and ligament damage and will miss Ulster’s next three League games is the worst possible timing.
Indeed he is likely to be still out for their must-win Friday night Heineken Cup clash with Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill on January 13, while also being doubtful for Ulster’s final pool game at Clermont Auvergne the following Saturday.
Paddy Jackson, who was playing in the centre following Spence’s departure, is also out of Boxing Day’s League clash with Leinster due to the ankle ligament damage the 19-year-old also suffered during last Saturday’s game in Italy.
Fortunately, Jackson may be fit enough in time to play a part against Munster at Ravenhill which comes four days after the Leinster game.
The dates and kick-off times for Ulster’s remaining two European pool games were revealed yesterday by organisers ERC and even though Pool Four leaders Ulster have three PRO12 League games to play before they return to Europe, anticipation has already begun to build around what is currently a three-way battle along with the Tigers and Clermont to finish as pool winners.
The Tigers will not be relishing the prospect of returning to Ravenhill for a Friday night game to save their European ambitions and, indeed, their only previous European visit saw Martin Johnson et al lose 33-0 on a Sunday afternoon in 2004.
The stakes will be high at what is likely to be a packed Ravenhill (kick-off is 8pm and tickets are now available from Ulster Rugby) as Ulster must prevail — preferably doing so with a bonus point and, if not, ensuring that the Tigers don't come away with a losing one — before heading to the intimidating Stade Marcel Michelin on January 21 (kick-off 4.40pm/3.40pmGMT) for what could be a winner takes all shoot-out with Clermont to decide who will automatically qualify for the knockout stages.
The odds of getting a win in France will be heavily stacked against Ulster —Clermont have remained unbeaten at home for a staggering 35 matches — but if they were to pick up a losing bonus point it could prove crucial in potentially getting Ulster into the quarter-finals as one of the best two runners-up from the pool stages.
Meanwhile, the return of Wallace and Marshall is not expected to be any quicker than Spence, leaving Ulster’s midfield severely depleted.
Neither is expected to be back until mid-January although Wallace continues to make a good recovery from thumb surgery while Marshall’s ankle sprain will, hopefully, be strong enough to see him return to some running by the end of this week.
With Spence’s enforced absence, it leaves Ulster having to again reshuffle their midfield options with Stefan Terblanche now looking likely to play alongside Darren Cave against Leinster and also possibly against Munster, though Ian Whitten is another possible who will come under consideration.
Andrew Trimble could also be redeployed into midfield if required though his availability due to the IRFU’s Player Management Programme, and the fact that the Irish squad are due to have a training camp over the festive period, is likely to curtail his involvement.
Also expected to be out until mid-January is prop Declan Fitzpatrick who has been sidelined with a neck problem though back rower Michael McComish is expected to be back training next week after he damaged his shoulder in the Ulster Ravens British and Irish Cup win at Rotherham Titans.
The Ravens’ quarter-final clash with Munster A seems likely to be played on Friday January 20 at Ravenhill.