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Ulster need to enjoy bonus

By Gavin Mairs

It's time to deliver.

That is the message David Humphreys will be sending to the Ulster side today when Mark McCall's side attempt to become the first side from the province to win a European Cup game on English soil against London Irish at the Madejski Stadium today (3.30pm, live on Sky Sports 3).

For Ulster the task is as simple as it is daunting. Win, and win with a four-try bonus point.

Following the defeat to Llanelli in October there is no room left for Ulster to slip up. No more ifs or maybes. With Llanelli entertaining Toulouse today, Ulster could go top of the pool five with a bonus-point victory should the Welsh region suffer their first defeat of the competition.

And with Irish and Llanelli next up at Ravenhill, McCall knows that a victory today would put Ulster right back in the frame for a place in the quarter-finals, a feat that has eluded them since they were crowned champions in 1999.

And according to Ulster's veteran out-half David Humphreys, the man who captained his beloved province to European glory seven years ago, the days of glorious failure are over.

"Last season we won the Celtic League title, which was a huge boost to the squad and a great achievement," said Humphreys, who has scored over 500 points for his province in the European Cup.

"But now is the time to make our mark on the European stage again. This is the best Ulster team I have been involved with and over the past two years, a lot of the young players have come through and now made their mark with Ireland.

"With eight of the boys getting capped for Ireland during the autumn, there is a huge buzz in the squad and the guys are hungry for more. They are bringing the experience of playing on the international stage back into the squad and it is rubbing off on the other players.

"London Irish are a good side and put Northampton away impressively a couple of weeks ago. But we know that if we perform to our ability we can beat anyone on our day and it is time to take another step up."

Meanwhile Irish coach Brian Smith, the former Ireland out-half, has made five changes to his side - two in the backs and three among the forwards - to the starting line-up that crashed to the Cardiff Blues last Friday.

In the backs former England and Lions star Mike Catt returns at inside centre and as captain while Paul Hodgson comes in at scrum half.

There are two changes in the front row, Neal Hatley starts at loose head prop with Robbie Russell at hooker. Kieran Roche comes into the back row at blindside flanker. Faan Rautenbach, the South Africa prop, is named in the squad for the first time this season having recovered from injury.

Smith is in no doubt of the threat that the visitors, who are expected to be cheered on by a crowd of over 6,000 at the Madejski Stadium, will pose.

"Ulster are an in-form side, current champions of the Magners Celtic League and conquerors of mighty Toulouse in the opening round of matches in our Heineken Cup pool," said Smith.

"We owe the Province one for that victory as we faced the backlash in the Stade Ernest Wallon the following weekend.

"Mark McCall's team is laced with more current Ireland internationals than ever so we are going into the game as underdogs - although that may not be a bad thing.

"The current high profile of the Ulster squad means that our players know what's in store - to say that they expect the game to be competitive is an understatement."

The key for Ulster will be doing something they have struggled to do all season - start like a house on fire.

A barn-storming opening by the visitors will leave Irish in no doubt of Ulster's intentions and strike a hammer blow at their fragile state of mind, the product of losing five of their nine Premiership matches and both European encounters.

As Humphreys said, it is time to deliver. And he is not often wrong.

LONDON IRISH: D Armitage; J Bishop, S Mapusua, M Catt, S Tagicakibau; S Geraghty; P Hodgson; N Hatley, R Russell, T Lea'aetoa, N Kennedy, B Casey, K Roche, S Armitage, J Leguizamon.

Replacements: M Collins, D Coetzee, F Rautenbach, J Hudson, P Murphy, G Tiesi, B Everitt.

ULSTER: B Cunningham; T Bowe, P Steinmetz, P Wallace, A Trimble; D Humphreys, I Boss; B Young, R Best, S Best, J Harrison, M McCullough, N Best, K Dawson, R Wilson.

Replacements: P Shields, J Fitzpatrick, T Barker, N McMillan, K Campbell, K Maggs, M Bartholomeusz.

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