ULSTER WEREN’T COMPLAINING, but the one difficulty in building up to tonight’s Heineken Cup Pool 5 clash with Montpellier had been almost entirely of their own making.
The round two win in Montpellier was the northern province’s second ever in France, and it left the Top 14 side with an uphill battle to escape the pool.
December’s head-to-heads sent Fabien Galthie’s men to Leicester where another defeat made making the knock-out stage all-but impossible and the legendary scrum-half began reaching into his reserves.
While Mark Anscombe has been able to welcome Rory Best, Johann Muller, Chris Henry and Nick Williams back into the squad to re-united his strongest possible XV (with Iain Henderson banging on the door), Galthie has retained only Thomas Combezou and Kelian Galletier from the side which slipped to a sixth defeat in seven against Brive at the weekend.
With the like of Jim Hamilton, Alex Tulou, Rene Ranger, Mamuka Gorgodze, Jonathan Pelissier and Francois Trinh Duc all left at home, Montpellier are clearly hoping that the fortnight out of the firing line can rejuvenate their domestic form and hoist them back above mid-table. For Ulster though, the next eight days represent a cornerstone in their season.
Anscombe has never shied from his disappointment of missing out on a home quarter-final in 2013 having started the season so well. The northern province has come a long way in a short space of time, but this team don’t need telling that they haven’t won anything yet. And centre Darren Cave, for one, is not ready to treat Montpellier’s Espoirs any different than the big guns.
“I’ve played in round five of the Heineken Cup having been out already,” Cave told TheScore.ie with an intent, hungry look in his eyes. “I know that for players the opportunity to get a scalp is still massive – the same can be said for Leicester’s game in Treviso.”
Leicester are breathing down the top seed’s necks and are also hotly tipped to win comfortably in Italy and set up pool decider at Welford Road, but Cave is determined to exorcise the regrets of last season within the next 160 minutes of rugby.
“We ended up fifth seeds last year and Saracens, fourth. So if we had gotten an extra bonus point somewhere we would have had them at Ravenhill.
“Now, I’m not saying we would have beaten them, but I am saying we would have had a better chance at beating them.
“At the same time I think this team is better than it was last year,” Cave added as he looked out towards the near-completed north stand in Ravenhill and added, “I’d love to be playing here in a home quarter final, but the important thing is that we get in the quarter-final.”
Making the most of the opportunity laid out at Ravenhill tonight will be key to bringing extra spring fixtures to Belfast.
Ulster: J Payne, A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy, P Jackson, R Pienaar: T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller, D Tuohy; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams.
Replacements: R Herring, C Black, D Fitzpatrick, I Henderson, R Wilson, S Doyle, P Marshall, M Allen.
Montpellier: A Floch, Y Artru, A Tuitavke, T Combezou, L Dupont; E Selponi, E Escande: N Leleimalefaga, C Geli (Capt.) M Bustos; M Demarco, R Tchale Watchou, K Galletier, A Bias, J Beattie.
Replacements: T Bianchin, M Nariashvili, P Fa’anunu, M Ivaldi, F Quercy, B Paillague, P Berard, T Nagusa.
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