Ul­ster’s key play­ers re­turn for must-win game against Le­ices­ter

With Scar­lets and Rac­ing 92 also in Pool Four, win is cru­cial for prov­ince

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY | HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP - Gerry Thornley

Pool Four Ul­ster v Le­ices­ter Tigers Kingspan Sta­dium, to­day, 5.30pm Live on BT Sport 2

Akin to Rassie Eras­mus in his first sea­son with Mun­ster, when Dan McFarland ini­tially looked across the con­tenders in Pool Four with a view to iden­ti­fy­ing the group’s pos­si­ble soft touch he prob­a­bly came to the pretty swift con­clu­sion that the tag ap­plied to Ul­ster.

Then again, on foot of tak­ing over from Matt O’Con­nor just one game into the new sea­son, Ge­or­dan Mur­phy may have come to a sim­i­lar de­duc­tion. In any event, with last sea­sons’ beaten semi-fi­nal­ists the Scar­lets and los­ing fi­nal­ists Rac­ing 92 in this pool, this looks like a must-win game for Ul­ster and Le­ices­ter’s most winnable away game.

This is sim­ply a huge game, par­tic­u­larly in Ul­ster’s sea­son.

These two ruled the roost be­tween them for three years around the turn of the mil­len­nium but they’ve long since stopped be­ing real con­tenders.

But it’s now been seven years since Ul­ster were beaten by Le­in­ster in the fi­nal, and five years since Jared Payne’s in­fa­mous red card de­nied prob­a­bly Ul­ster’s finest team their most cred­i­ble shot at the tro­phy.

It’s been three years since Le­ices­ter’s 13th and most re­cent ap­pear­ance in the knock­out stages.

This lat­est meet­ing finds two teams seek­ing to re­dress un­ex­cep­tional cam­paigns, un­der new head coaches and in de­cid­edly patchy form. After a gutsy four-game un­beaten start to the sea­son, Ul­ster suf­fered a record thump­ing away to Mun­ster and a first home loss to Con­nacht in 58 years.

Ca­su­alty toll

How­ever, a lengthy ca­su­alty toll is be­ing eased and they have been given a timely boost by the re­turn to ac­tion from in­jury of Craig Gil­roy, Jordi Mur­phy, Will Ad­di­son, Michael Lowry and Marty Moore. Lowry starts at full­back, Gil­roy on the right wing and Ad­di­son at out­side cen­tre.

Up front, Ross Kane comes in at tight-head and Mur­phy at open­side in a reshuf­fled and well-bal­anced look­ing back­row in place of the sus­pended Matty Rea.

Amaz­ingly, and cru­cially, this will con­sti­tute a long-awaited Euro­pean de­but in his third sea­son for the pre­vi­ously in­jury be­dev­illed Mar­cell Coet­zee. Mur­phy, Ad­di­son, and Billy Burns will make their Cham­pi­ons Cup de­buts for Ul­ster, hav­ing pre­vi­ously rep­re­sented other clubs in the com­pe­ti­tion, and as will Moore most likely. The ex-Le­in­ster tight-head is in line to make his first ap­pear­ance for Ul­ster after re­cov­er­ing from a calf in­jury after be­ing named in what is a rel­a­tively cal­low-look­ing bench.

Le­ices­ter wel­come back Wal­la­bies duo Matt Toomua and Tatafu Polota-Nau from duty in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship, and Mur­phy names them among their re­place­ments, while mak­ing just two changes to his start­ing line-up.

Jonny May misses out with the shoul­der in­jury suf­fered in the win over Northamp­ton Saints at Twick­en­ham last Satur­day, giv­ing Jor­dan Olowofela an op­por­tu­nity on the wing, and there is a change in the for­ward pack where David Den­ton is ruled out and Bren­don O’Con­nor re­turns.

This is the fifth time they have been paired to­gether in the pool stages, and the Tigers have a sur­pris­ingly grim record in Belfast, where they have lost on all of their pre­vi­ous four vis­its and usu­ally quite heav­ily as well – Ul­ster’s av­er­age win­ning mar­gin in the four games be­ing 23 points.

Five wins

With Ul­ster also hav­ing won on one of their four trips to Welford Road, they lead the head to head by five wins to three. Fur­ther­more, while the Tigers are rightly renowned for be­ing the only team to have stormed Thomond Park and beaten Mun­ster twice in the lat­ter’s Euro­pean citadel, they have lost on seven of their last eight trips to Ire­land in the tour­na­ment, their 31-19 vic­tory over Mun­ster in 2015 be­ing their only vic­tory in that time. Le­ices­ter also fin­ished last sea­son’s Euro cam­paign with four straight de­feats, their worst ever in the com­pe­ti­tion.

They ar­rive on the back of suc­ces­sive wins, and are the Premier­ship’s third most pro­lific points scor­ers, and full­back Jonah Holmes is a par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous, bro­ken field, counter-at­tack­ing run­ner.

It looks a par­tic­u­larly hard game to call be­tween two er­ratic, in­jury af­flicted teams who have still to set­tle. Home ad­van­tage is huge in this com­pe­ti­tion and this fix­ture, al­beit the odds point to a closer con­test than is gen­er­ally the case be­tween these two.

Given their re­cent in­jury dis­rup­tions and set­backs, Ul­ster will as­suredly keep it sim­ple, and have the ball-car­ry­ing bal­last in Iain Hen­der­son, Coet­zee, Nick Ti­money and the in-form Stu­art McCloskey to get the job done.

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