The quarter finals of the Heineken Cup are here and Ulster have been presented with a chance to avenge the defeat they suffered at Twickenham to Saracens at this stage last season.
1. Squad Health
Before the Twickenham clash last year Ulster were ravaged by injuries. Mark Anscombe opted against selecting his inexperienced members who were playing regularly for the team during the Six Nations in the Pro12 and named a side packed full of quality players who were lacking match fitness and sharpness. Anscombe’s gamble failed spectacularly as they turned out their most abject performance of the season against a Saracens side searching for blood. This term Ulster do not have many injury concerns going into the crunch game at Ravenhill with the exception of fulcrum, Ruan Pienaar. Most of the Northern province’s players are fighting fit and the likes of Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris have even got themselves some game time for Ulster during the Six Nations coming back off long term layoffs. Ulster will not be caught out by the intensity and speed of the contest this time.
2. Build up
With Ireland claiming the Six Nations crown confidence is high in Irish rugby and the Ulster players who took part in the success are no exception. The country’s obsession with the national team and Brian O’Driscoll’s fairytale departure will have been welcomed by all of the provincial coaches but especially Ulster. During last year’s Six Nations debacle attention was turned very early to the Heineken Cup quarter-final ties. There was much hype up north about Ulster’s chances going to Twickenham and beating what was supposedly a limited but effective Saracens outfit. The pressure seemed to have gotten too much for the Ulstermen as they simply froze in front of our eyes and the Saracens took them to the cleaners. This year the match is being viewed as too close to call and this will suit Anscombe’s men who do not wear the favourites’ tag well.
The Red Hand form going into last year’s tie was absolutely dreadful. Out of six league games they only won two. With the squad stretched to its limits, their performances, apart from the Leinster win, were very poor and lacked any cohesion or intensity. This was a sign of things to come at Twickenham. Fast forward to this year and Ulster have won five out of six games with players who are likely to be playing on Saturday. They may have lost last week to Cardiff but this could be a blessing in disguise as Anscombe and his charges have been given a warning that if they are not one hundred percent ready and focussed come kick off at Ravenhill on Saturday evening, they will not progress any further in this season’s tournament.
4. Experience & Examples
It was the first time Ulster had taken on Mark McCall’s Saracens since the Barnet side had been injected with huge investment. What the northerners found out to their cost that day was that the Saracens were well drilled and played to a simple game plan. The Fez Heads look to gain a lead as quickly as possible and then strangle a team Anaconda style as they kick deep and win penalties and they force the opposition to counter attack from deep with excellent kick coverage from Goode, Wyles and Aston. Anscombe will know Ulster must get out of the blocks quickly or it could be a long day at the office for his men. Score early, score often should be his side’s mantra on Saturday.
The Kiwi coach is lucky as the template for success against Saracens has been laid out by the French sides. Toulon last year and Toulouse this season showed that Saracens are all but incapable of beating opponents that dominate them physically up front. Saracens love nothing more than isolating the ball carrier and winning turnovers. Ulster must negotiate this by keeping the ball tight and look for set-piece superiority. However, this is easier said than done.
5. Home Advantage
Playing the game in Belfast is massive for this Ulster team. Ulster have proven they can win away this year with victories over Montpellier and Leicester in France and England respectively. But it is always clear that the northerners feel so much more confident and comfortable at Ravenhill. Of course the supporters have huge influence, from urging the home team forward to helping the referee make up his mind. But it is the simple things like waking up in your own bed on game day, knowing what way the pitch slopes or understanding the wind direction when lining up a shot at the posts that are the real benefits of a home tie for a player. Ulster will have to be on their game to defeat England’s top club side at the moment. But playing in their newly refurbished fortress in front of a fanatic support may be the difference between the defeat of last year and victory this year for the Ulstermen.
Pundit Arena, Matt Cassidy.
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