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Ulster can reach for the Sky

Stuart Barnes, the former Bath and England fly-half who nowadays makes his money as a Sky Sports rugby pundit, reckons Ulster will beat his old club comfortably in tonight’s Heineken Cup Pool Four opener.

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In an exclusive eve-of-tournament interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he highlighted Ulster’s recent performances, underlined the ‘Ravenhill factor’ and named individual players more than capable of holding their own on the European stage.

“I remember watching Ulster against Stade Francais last year and in the end Ulster were quite well beaten — on the scoreboard,” said Barnes.

“Stade bored us to death and won the match with drop goals, but for half an hour Ulster took them to pieces and just couldn’t finish anything. I was really impressed that day. I remember thinking then that Ulster had real potential.

“So their current form doesn’t surprise me. I just sense a real turn here

“I think it’s really important for Ulster to have Ulstermen leading and with Brian McLaughlin and Jeremy Davidson you have that. That’s vital.

“You have Timoci Nagusa and he gives a real cutting edge. If Ulster stay in opposition territory for any length of time, this beast is going to score tries. No doubt about that. That finish, that cutting edge — that’s a big difference to what went before.

“And with David Humphreys as Director of Rugby, I think Ian is looking more confident — and he is a confidence player, so that’s very important. He gives it shape.

“You’ve got a world-class player in Stephen Ferris, too, so I think Ulster look strong at the minute.

“I saw them against the Scarlets last week and they looked very good.

“Bath, in comparison, are floundering in mid-table in a tournament of middling quality and the step-up for them on Friday night at Ravenhill is going to be huge. I don’t believe they’re ready.

“Ravenhill is a particularly difficult venue for an away team so I expect Bath to lose. My honest assessment is that Ulster will win this game comfortably with 10 points to spare.”

He highlighted some of tonight’s guests’ problem areas by saying: “They can’t close games off and that’s a major problem for them. Bath should have beaten Leicester down at The Rec. They didn’t; they drew 20-20.

“They should have beaten Harlequins last week. Again, they didn’t; they lost 13-11.

“I think there’s a problem in the camp with exactly how they’re trying to play and what they’re trying to do. I don’t think they’re on the same wavelength, unlike Ulster, who are and that’s why I think Ulster will beat them.”

Barnes stressed that “no-one at Bath is hiding behind the club’s off-field problems during the summer or using that to explain their poor form.”

“All of that happened at the end of last season and at the very start of the close season,” he said.

“Bath themselves say it happened long enough ago for them to have moved on. Nobody at The Rec is using that excuse; certainly Steve Meehan (head coach).

“He said to me that had the Bath crisis come when the Harlequins Bloodgate incident did, that would have been a different matter, but he felt it happened long enough ago — end of last season, right at the start of the close season — for Bath to be over it.

“Carraro (Matt) has come in for Crockett (Alex) and has done pretty well. And Julian Salvi is a better player than Michael Lipman, end of story.

“So the loss of personnel really isn’t an issue, although the one they haven’t replaced is Matt Stevens.

“Bath’s great strength previously was the way they offloaded in the front row, in particular. That’s what opened up defences; they sucked opposition into midfield and then went wide.

“Right now they’re going wide too early, they’re really quite static and they’re easy to read.”

Co-pundit Dewi Morris — who sat in on the interview, along with Paul Wallace — agreed, but warned Ulster of the threat posed by Bradford Bulls Rugby League convert, Kiwi centre, Shontayne Hape.

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