We must make sure to top our Pool, says Ulster assistant coach Doak
Ulster will doubtless have been somewhat relieved that they have an eight-day turnaround between their next two qualification-deciding Heineken Cup Pool games after the running order of fixtures was confirmed yesterday.
While Leinster have a mere five days between their crucial Pool One clashes, in what looks to be already quite a struggle for them to achieve a home quarter-final, Pool Five leaders Ulster, who are the only side to have won all four games so far will – after hosting Montpellier – have over a week to lick their wounds and prepare for what will potentially be a shoot-out at Leicester Tigers to finish top of the group.
Ulster will host Montpellier on Friday January 10 with kick-off scheduled for 8.00pm, while they cross swords with the Tigers on Saturday, January 18 with the game starting at 6.00pm.
Ulster – who are on 18 points after four games, three more than the Tigers – also have an extra day of rest than that afforded to Leicester as they play their penultimate group game at Treviso on Saturday, January 11.
While all at Ulster will have been less than pleased that the Tigers managed to win at Montpellier, with a last-gasp score, Mark Anscombe's squad will still draw strength from the knowledge that they remain in control of Pool five and that they have shown themselves more than capable of winning on the road.
Not that Ulster assistant coach Neil Doak has accepted that the Tigers game will necessarily pan out the way most observers have already predicted. After all, Ulster will still need to defeat Montpellier in Belfast to put themselves in the ideal position for the final pool game with Leicester, who will be expected to get a bonus point win at Treviso.
"They're going to be two tough games," said Doak.
"In European rugby, they tend to be mostly tight games and you can see a few upsets and a few strange results along the way.
"But if you said at the start of the season 'you'll be four from four in the competition at this stage' we would have said 'thank you very much, we'll definitely take that,' he added.
"Hopefully it will come down to that game (Welford Road) and we'll still be in the mix.
"If both teams are playing for that last game to be group leaders we could potentially both go through," Doak stated regarding the possibility that two teams could yet make it through from Pool Five with the side which finishes in second advancing to the last eight as one of the two best runners-up.
"We've just to make sure we're the top one going through," the assistant coach added.
But before all that, Ulster face three important PRO12 games with Zebre up first at Ravenhill tomorrow night (kick-off 7.05pm).
With the home side's selection already likely to be somewhat altered from last week, Anscombe now looks as if he will also be without tight-head prop Declan Fitzpatrick due to illness and he is unable to call on John Afoa as he has just returned home to New Zealand.
This means a rare start for Ricky Lutton in the number three shirt, while back-up is likely to be provided by Adam Macklin. Lewis Stevenson could be back in the starting side's engine room while Niall Annett is believed to be a likely starter at hooker.
Paddy Wallace is expected to hook up with Jared Payne in midfield, allowing Ricky Andrew to slot in at full-back.