The Inside Track: Where the game can be won and lost
Jonathan Bradley runs his eye over all the key battles and showdowns in tonight’s big European battle in Belfast.
Rory Best v Tom Youngs
The battle between the hookers sees two of the British and Irish Lions’ victorious touring party from 2013 going head to head. Rory Best is restored to the side after being rested against Toulon last week — a sensible move dictated by the IRFU’s Player Welfare Programme.
The Ulster captain, who saw the lineout wobble in his last outing against Treviso, brings invaluable experience at this level to the side and Neil Doak will appreciate his skipper’s relentless work in the loose and at the breakdown for the final time before losing him to Ireland’s Six Nations effort.
Youngs, who is involved in a straight battle with Dylan Hartley to claim the England number two jersey, gets the nod ahead of Leonardo Ghiraldini this evening.
Having been converted from centre as recently as 2009, Youngs is very comfortable with the ball in his hands but his throwing is sometimes questioned and he will need to be on target at the lineout if Leicester are not to be deprived of one of their serious weapons.
Ian Humphreys v Freddie Burns
With Paddy Jackson shipping another unfortunate injury last weekend, Ian Humphreys is restored to the number 10 shirt to face his former team this evening.
The 32-year-old spent three seasons at Welford Road — at a time when current head coach Richard Cockerill was in charge of the team’s forwards — before making his first return to Ulster in 2008. With Jackson out for 12 weeks following elbow surgery, Ulster will need Humphreys to get into a rhythm quickly ahead of what is a crucial run of PRO12 contests.
Freddie Burns is again picked ahead of Owen Williams at out-half for the visitors and he comes in with a point to prove.
Discarded by England after the summer tour to New Zealand, Burns was not picked by Stuart Lancaster this week. He gave an improved kicking performance in the 40-23 win over Scarlets last week and has been working with Northampton Saints legend Paul Grayson.
Iain Henderson v Tom Croft
It has been yet another tough week for Ulster coach Neil Doak on the injury front — Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding will both miss 12 weeks while Louis Ludik will be out until the end of next month — but the return of Iain Henderson from a hip complaint to boost his depleted forward reserves is a huge plus.
Capable of playing at lock but getting the start at blindside flanker today, Henderson is making his first appearance since representing Ireland against Argentina last summer.
The 22-year-old — who may well get more game time before the Six Nations when the Irish Wolfhounds play against the England Saxons next week — is a dynamic ball carrier and gives Ulster a tangible threat in that area.
Croft is a forward with a variety of attributes but, after an injury-hit two years, has been behind Northampton-bound Jamie Gibson in recent months. He will also see time in the Wolfhounds-Saxons encounter and needs to take any opportunity to impress Stuart Lancaster.
The main threats
With the likes of Graham Kitchener, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft in the side, Ulster will obviously be wary of the opposing lineout, while a front-row trio of Marcos Ayerza, Tom Youngs and Logovii Mulipola can be punishing come scrum time.
There is also danger behind the pack. Manu Tuilagi is injured but the likes of Miles Benjamin, Vereniki Goneva and Seremaia Bai still provide dangerous strike runners while Matthew Tait offers a real threat from fullback.
The return of Tommy Bowe, Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall to Ulster’s backline gives it a strong look with halfbacks Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys fielded in front of five men who have all been capped by Ireland at Test level.
Iain Henderson’s return gives Ulster some ballast with Alan O’Connor also capable of making an impact, while Mike McComish will be out to repeat his strong efforts against Toulon.
Much like the Leicester Tigers teams of old, this is a squad that relies on establishing forward dominance and the need to chase full points should not alter that.
Last week against the Scarlets, the Premiership outfit found themselves in a similar situation given the need for a five-pointer and it remained a performance that was built upon traditional strengths.
The Welsh region could find little way of stopping a relentless rolling maul while Cockerill’s men were also deadly from set moves off the scrum.
With their European fate decided, Ulster can play with a freedom rarely afforded to professionals.
Against Toulon, building on promising first-halves against Leinster and Treviso, Ulster moved the ball well in the process of nabbing a bonus and, while they will hope to limit their opponents better than they did in France, Neil Doak will look for that to continue.
Stat attack: Ulster have not lost twice at home in the same European pool stage since the 2007/08 season when Ospreys and Harlequins both won in Belfast. The same year that Leicester last failed to win a single away game.
A bit of previous...
Ulster’s last six results:
Toulon 60 Ulster 22*
Treviso 20 Ulster 24**
Leinster 24 Ulster 11**
Ulster 13 Connacht 10**
Ospreys 31 Ulster 20**
Scarlets 22 Ulster 13*
leicester’s last six results:
Leicester 40 Scarlets 23*
Harlequins 32 Leicester 12**
Leicester 17 Bath 8**
Sale 30 Leicester 32**
Northampton 23 Leicester 19**
Toulon 23 Leicester 8*