With the European Rugby Champions Cup about to begin in earnest, Conor Heffernan previews the clash of Leicester and Ulster on Saturday night.
Ulster’s preparations for this weekend’s tie against Leicester at Welford Road have been set back with the news that Andrew Trimble is a doubt for the European Champions Cup opener. Unfortunately for Ulster, Trimble joins Ruan Pienaar on the injury list.
Pienaar is still recovering from the injury he sustained playing for the Springboks against New Zealand last month. For newly appointed Ulster head coach, Neil Doak, news of Trimble’s injury was not ideal, but following last weekend’s impressive 29-9 win over Glasgow, he has every right to be confident going into the game.
Doak’s biggest concern for this weekend centres on his selection at fly half. Paddy Jackson will be fit for the game against the Tigers and Doak is left with the tough choice between Jackson and an in-form Ian Humpreys for the ten jersey. Five Ian Humphrey’s penalties against the Warriors last weekend will be playing on Doak’s mind.
He is unlikely to want to break up the relationship Paul Marshall and Humpreys displayed against Glasgow. Whether or not he wants to risk disrupting his team’s momentum is a serious issue. The match against Glasgow displayed the very best of Ulster rugby.
Strong at the set-piece, clinical with the ball in hand and resolute defensively. With very few faults emerging from the game against the Warriors, Doak may do well to leave team selection unchanged. Ulster fans will want a repeat performance this Saturday in the opening game of their European Champions Cup campaign.
Leicester come into the game off the back of a much needed victory against Harlequins last Friday. The return of England centre Manu Tuilagi revitalized Richard Cockerill’s men and inspired them to their first victory since Tuilagi’s injury in September . Prior to the game Leicster had been staring down a fourth-consecutive defeat. Something that hadn’t happened in eleven years.
Cockerill was under pressure. Within four minutes of the kick-off however, Leicester already had points on the board. Buoyed by the home support, Leicester began the match in lively fashion and it soon became apparent that it the Quins were no match.
Mathew Tait and fit-again Manu Tuilagi were particularly impressive in the centre, effortlessly spreading the ball out to the wings at key moments of the game. At fly half, Owen Williams showed his cool under pressure, and in the forwards the Tigers were not easily muscled. Leicester go into this game hoping that the return of Tuilagi and prop Marcos Ayerza will help kick start their season.
When these teams met in the now defunct Heineken Cup last year, Ruan Pienaar scored all of Ulster’s 22 points in a three-point win over the Tigers. It was a result that ended Leicester’s impressive unbeaten home run of 25 matches in the competition. Earlier in the season Ulster had defeated the Tigers at Ravenhill.
For this weekend’s clash, it’s hard to see anything other than another Ulster win. Ulster have a strong European pedigree having reached at least the last eight of the Heineken Cup for the past four years and there’s little to suggest a slip up in form for the Ulstermen. Their start to the season this year has been impressive with the Ulstermen currently sitting third in the Pro12 with four wins, one draw and one defeat.
Expect Ulster to emerge victorious this weekend at Welford.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.
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