European Challenge Cup: Northampton Saints v Ulster
(Franklin Gardens, Saturday, 8pm, Live on BT Sport)
IT’S a return to England for Ulster this weekend as Dan McFarland’s side travel to Franklin Gardens on Saturday evening to face Northampton Saints in a European Challenge Cup quarter-final.
Ulster will make the journey in high spirits having crushed Harlequins 57-21 at Twickenham Stoop on Sunday but know the challenge will be greater again against a Saints side that battled back from 19 points down against Dragons last weekend to reach the last eight of the competition in a 43-39 win.
With both side racking up the points, it suggests this weekend’s game will be a high-scoring and open affair, but that does not mean that Ulster will be making the trip with the mindset of throwing caution to the wind and setting out their stall for a shootout.
Instead, they will approach in the same manner they did last week by first getting their own performance right and seeing where that leads.
Admittedly, last week Harlequins were far from full-strength, but that was not Ulster’s problem as they attacked well from the off and played some scintillating rugby.
More of the same is the message this week but forwards coach, Roddy Grant, agrees that they must first earn the right to play against a side that sits in fifth place in the Gallagher’s Premiership.
“The quarter-final of a tournament, we are all preparing to win,” he insisted.
“It’s the same as every week. I have been really impressed by the staff here at Ulster since I’ve been here. It’s awesome how aligned everyone is in terms of the language around coaching and everyone is driven to win week-in, week-out.
“We know the expectation in pro sport, so we just prepare to win each game either way.
“We will play and prepare like we normally do. We want to attack really well, whether that’s offloading or quick ball from the break-down, brutal carries...
“They are physical in defence, so we will have to be physical in attack to get the ball to generate quick ball so we can play.”
Iain Henderson remains out after picking up a shoulder injury during Ireland’s Six Nations win over England three weeks ago. Cormac Izuchukwu sustained a knee injury against Harlequins last week and he too misses out, but Ulster have proven strength-in-depth.
Fresh from his wonder-score against Harlequins last week, Michael Lowry starts at full-back, and is joined in the back three by Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune. Stuart McCloskey and James Hume will form the midfield duo, and Billy Burns and John Cooney are the starting half-backs.
In the front row, Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring and Marty Moore retain their starting berths. Alan O’Connor will partner Kieran Treadwell in the second row. Last week’s Player of the Match, Sean Reidy, will start at blindside flanker, with Jordi Murphy skippering the team at openside and Nick Timoney at Number Eight.
They will need all hands on deck against a Northampton team that is laced with talent and while some Ulster fans may now have high hopes of going all the way in the competition, Grant warned that there is a long way to go and Northampton will also be high on confidence given the manner of their win in Wales last weekend.
“It’s still a quarter-final and still knockout,” he warned.
“If you look at the Dragons game, it was a very good team they (Northampton) put out.
“Nick Isiekwe is a brilliant player from them, on-loan from Saracens; Tom Wood a brilliant player with loads of experience; Piers Francis - my old mate from Edinburgh - an English international, so they are all brilliant players.
“Like anything, the next round you go into is always going to be a naturally bigger test so we are expecting a tough game. As a forwards coach, they are a very good pack and big test for us.”
Ulster will be expecting a tough, physical encounter on Saturday evening against a side that has strength all over the pitch.
Just what team the English club put out is to be revealed, but like Ulster, they have plenty on strength throughout the squad so this will not be an easy assignment for the Irish province.
A win would secure a semi-final on the first weekend in May, but there is no looking past the challenge they face this weekend as a below par display will extend Ulster’s search for a first trophy since the 2006 Celtic League triumph.
However, should they hit the heights they did in the last 16 game against Harlequins, then they will feel they have every chance of making it back-to-back wins over Premiership opposition, but are also wary of the never-say-die spirit of Northampton as exemplified but their remarkable late fightback against Dragons.
“It’s a tough game this week, but quarter-finals in Europe are always tough - Saints are a very good team,” Grant added.
“They have certainly gone well over the past two or three months and have some great individuals.
“They had a few injuries for last week and by the looks of it, rested a couple of other guys. They are similar to all English sides when you look at them with some really good players and a great squad.
“We know that Newport is a difficult place to go and Dragons have some great individuals too, but it was an impressive performance from Northampton and to come back to get the win.”
ULSTER: (15-9) Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney; (1-8) Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy (Capt.), Nick Timoney.
Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Matty Rea, Greg Jones, Alby Mathewson, Ian Madigan, Ethan McIlroy.