AND SO ULSTER get set for their latest attempt to make history in Europe.
By beating Leicester Tigers at Welford Road – a feat they have not yet managed in the Heineken Cup – Ulster would ensure a clean sweep of six wins from six games in Pool 5 and confirm their status as top seeds for the quarter-finals.
On top of their tournament-leading 22 match points after five rounds, Mark Anscombe’s men have racked up the highest total on the scoreboard, with 157 points already amassed coming into today’s encounter. Only Saracens, in a pool alongside Zebre, have scored more tries than Ulster’s 16 before this weekend.
It has been comprehensive so far from the northern province, and yet there is a sense within the squad that they are not quite getting the plaudits their achievements deserve. Beating the Tigers at their 24,000-capacity stronghold and progressing to a favourable home quarter-final would change that for good.
Not that Anscombe’s charges are unduly caught up with what the media or supporters in the rest of the country think about them. Instead, they are concentrating on avoiding a slip in front of the final hurdle, with that first-ever home Heineken Cup final having been a driving force for the last three years.
Despite their inconsistency in the Premiership – Leicester are currently fifth but well in contention for the play-offs – Richard Cockerill’s charges have also already secured progress to the knock-out stages in Europe and are playing for a home quarter-final today.
The Tigers’ last Heineken Cup title may have come as long ago as 2002, but they remain a team respected in European circles. Ulster are aware of the threats posed by the likes of classic openside flanker Julian Salvi, back row-esque hooker Tom Youngs and energetic scrum-half Ben Youngs.
Ruan Pienaar is a man built for this high-stakes situation. ©INPHO/James Crombie.
Leading the Leicester team is out-half Toby Flood, who has become synonymous with the club since joining from Newcastle in 2008. That era comes to an end at the conclusion of the current season, with the 28-year-old set for a move to Toulouse. How he would love to finish on a high in Europe, and a home quarter-final would increase the chances of such a denouement.
The statistics back up the impressions of Leicester garnered by watching them with the untrustworthy eye this season. While their ‘traditional’ strengths at the scrum and line-out are still present, if fading, Cockerill’s side like to move the ball through the hands and challenge the opposition by beating defenders. Centre Niki Goneva is useful in that regard.
Flood at his best is creative and if Ulster’s previously solid defence is not present again, he will be an incisive influence. Niall Morris, starting on the right wing, will be one of those hoping to benefit from the England international’s distribution, particularly after failing to make the all-inclusive 44-man Ireland squad this month.
Still, Ulster have the weapons to win in Welford Road, with Ruan Pienaar topping that list. Committed to the province for another two seasons after the current one, his composure and kicking will be as crucial as ever in deciding the outcome. Further back, Jared Payne’s influence in changing the point of attack and countering in his balanced, decisive manner are also key.
Dan Tuohy, an enemy of the Tigers, Callum Black and Chris Henry will dictate whether that duo get enough possession to do the damage Anscombe knows they are capable of. Opposite Flood is Ireland international Paddy Jackson, who has been growing and growing as a player this season.
Like his province, the 22-year-old can top off his undoubted progress by excelling against Leicester and sealing a home quarter-final. Doing that would once again mark Ulster out as serious Heineken Cup contenders. No side would fancy a trip to the finished Ravenhill in April.
It’s time for Ulster to take the next step.
Leicester Tigers: M Tait; N Morris, A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood, B Youngs: M Ayerza, T Youngs, D Cole; E Slater, G Kitchener; J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane.
Replacements: R Hawkins, B Stankovich, F Balmain, L Deacon, S Mafi, D Mele, O Williams, S Hamilton.
Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (c), D Tuohy; R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams.
Replacements: R Herring, T Court, R Lutton, I Henderson, R Diack, P Marshall, D McIlwaine, M Allen.
Kick-off in this evening’s clash at Welford Road is at 6.00pm. Nigel Owens will referee the game, with Sean Bricknell [Wales] and Jonathan Mason [Wales] acting as his assistants. Tim Hayes, also of Wales, is on TMO duties, while Douglas Hunter [Scotland] is the citing commissioner.