By Tadhg Peavoy
Ulster v Leicester, Friday, Ravenhill, kick-off 8pm
Ulster’s start to the 2013/2014 season has been patchy to say the least.
Five games into the PRO12 season they have a 60% win ratio and have looked a side still assembling all the pieces of the jigsaw as they look to get their season on track to secure some silverware.
This Friday they face one of European rugby’s great sides in Leicester Tigers, two-time European champions, and a side that always bring a directness and physicality with them that is the hallmark of their brand, and that has often been in the past the spine of the England national team.
This year is no different, as they come into the season as Aviva Premiership champions and with it a bucket load of confidence. They have targeted the Heineken Cup trophy this season, and will be strategically setting themselves up to peak for H Cup weekends as a result.
Tigers also have a 60% win ratio in their opening five clashes in the Premiership, which does not indicate stellar form, and if you are going to take them on in a Heineken Cup pool, then why not at home in the first round to test yourself to the maximum.
Ulster’s leading stars have been crowing about wanting to step up to that next level. If they’re to do that, this is exactly the kind of high-profile European fixture they will want to secure victory from.
Both sides are physical and it will be an intense forward battle in Belfast on Friday night.
The two packs are full of tremendous talent. Tigers likely have the edge in the front row, where in Tom Youngs and Dan Cole they have two of the standout front-rowers in Europe. Tom Court and Rory Best are no slouches either, but could Declan Fitzpatrick have a tough day at the office against Logovi'i Mulipola? Possibly, yes.
In the engine room, Dan Tuohy and Johann Muller are the definition of reliability, and their face-off with Louis Deacon and Geoff Parling should be a mouth-watering one. Parling is effective around the pitch in the loose and acts like an extra back-rower for Tigers, and his inclusion, and how well he plays, will be key on Friday.
Crucially, you would have to feel that Ulster’s back row trio of Roger Wilson, Chris Henry and Nick Williams have the edge on Ed Slater, Julian Salvi and Jordan Crane. The Ulster trio are superb on the deck in stealing ball and Williams is devastating in broken field play. If they get that crucial edge there, then I would feel very positive about Ulster getting a result in this one.
Ulster also look strong in the back division, with Andrew Trimble (No 14), Tommy Bowe (No 11) and Darren Cave (No 13) all starting. These guys give the Ulstermen the firepower to finish moves and their inclusion – especially Bowe’s – is a big positive.
Quite simply, those three they have the edge on their opposite numbers Miles Benjamin, Adam Thompstone and Vereniki Goneva, although Goneva’s brute force is likely to be a worry for the entire duration of the match.
Supply-wise, Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson will be spreading from 9 and 10, and have looked a good pairing so far this season. But in Ben Youngs and Toby Flood they face a huge challenge. The Tigers half-backs have the pace, vision and tactics to really hurt their opposite numbers with their own attacks. However, with Ruan Pienaar named on the bench for Ulster, one can be certain that the Ulstermen have a game-changing replacement to call on. The Springbok’s presence may just swing what could be a very tight match.
Verdict: Ulster to win by three
Connacht v Saracens, Friday, the Sportsground, kick-off 8pm
The good news for Connacht is that they can call on plenty of talent this Friday night against Saracens.
Having captain Michael Swift back in the second row is a massive bonus and he’s a talisman to build a pack around, while the welcoming back of Rodney Ah You and Sean Henry strengthens the front row.
Likewise, the inclusion of both John Muldoon and Jake Heenan in the back row makes the 6-7 axis strong.
However, the absence of Miah Nikora (long term – shoulder) and Eoin Griffin (torn foot ligament) weakens Connnacht, and they could really feel those two guys not being on the park on Friday.
Gavin Duffy and Fionn Carr will provide creativity and breaks from full back and right wing, while Dan Parks’ steady nature at 10 is always a good pendulum in a side. James So'oialo at 12 will act as the battering ram for Connacht when they attempt to go route one in this tie.
As for the bad news, well there’s two parts to it. One, Saracens have a 100% win record in the Premiership so far this season. Two, the starting XV is just brimming with talent.
The back three of Alex Goode, Chris Ashton and David Strettle has the pace to trouble any defence, while Chris Wyles and Joel Tomkins at 12 and 13 will hammer away at the Connacht midfield all night with power and stamina. Add in Owen Farrell at 10, and Connacht face a back line of power.
It doesn’t get any easier for Connacht up front, where with Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits and Matt Stevens at 1,2 and 3, Sarries are surely going to be very dominant in the scrum, and from that platform scrum-half Neil de Kock should have plenty of time and possession to spread wide to the danger men in his team.
Second row Steve Borthwick is the captain and dynamo of the Saracens side, and he will use all his experience to guide Sarries against Connacht. The Sportsground is a tough, hostile place to play, and the 57-time capped England international is just the man you would want to lead, calm and inspire an away team when playing at such a venue.
In the back row, Kelly Brown and Billy Vunipola will win ball and run at the defence creating space and holes for their team-mates to exploit.
Add in Ernst Joubert, Richard Wigglesworth and Michael Tagicakibau on the bench, and you would be a very brave man to bet against Sarries winning this tie.
If Connacht can gain parity up front, and if Dan Parks kicks his possession and spot-kicks with near perfect accuracy, then Pat Lam’s side have a chance, but it looks a big ask.
Verdict: Saracens to win by 15