By Brendan Cole
Ulster v Montpellier, Ravenhill, 8.00pm
Ulster have an excellent opportunity to put themselves into a strong position in Pool Five ahead of the final round with Montpellier sending a weakened side to Ravenhill for this encounter.
Mark Anscombe’s men have 18 points after four rounds of an impressive campaign to date, but even if they win tonight, they could still be overhauled by Leicester next week. T
he Tigers face Treviso in Italy on Saturday afternoon and only need to win there to stay within touching distance.
A bonus point win tonight, very much on the cards given Ulster’s improved attacking form and the Montpellier selection, would only give Ulster a three-point cushion ahead of next week’s trip to Welford Road.
The main motivation is that five points tonight would give them a high seeding and a possible home quarter-final if they can win next week, along with a chance at a best runner-up place in the next round, although the bar for those places is likely to be higher than usual this year.
Ulster should be able to claim five points, having greatly improved since struggling at the beginning of the season.
It may not all be plain sailing. The pack is functional in the tight rather than imposing and a repeat of the problems they had with defending the maul and pick and drive against Munster against a weighty Montpellier pack would certainly slow things down.
Montpellier’s decision to leave the influential flanker Mamuka Gordoze at home is a welcome one for Ulster, though Scotland number eight Johnnie Beattie will be looking to make an impact ahead of his anticipated departure at the end of this seaon.
In that light, the return Rory Best and Johann Muller is well timed but even with their key leaders back in the starting team, this Ulster pack does not look capable of dominating a bruiser Top 14 outfit. However, they should be able to cope at the set piece, and then set a high tempo when the game breaks up.
If they can manage the set piece and force Montpellier into open space, Ulster will back their turnover ability, particularly the threat of Best and Chris Henry, and their own backline.
They have a fine combination of variety and precision at half-back with Ruan Pienaar rarely less than calmly imperious at scrum-half and Paddy Jackson increasingly impressive alongside him in recent weeks.
Together, they create space and momentum for the wide men and as against Munster last week, full-back Jared Payne’s creativity and adventurousness may turn out to be the key to turning broken-field opportunity into try-scoring situations.
Elsewhere, with the Six Nations fast approaching, Craig Gilroy will be among those who will be keen to show what he can do having had a relatively quiet time of it since returning from injury in November.
Luke Marshall, Andrew Trimble, Dan Tuohy and Henry will also be looking to show their best ahead of Joe Schmidt’s squad selection, while Iain Henderson will hope to get a chance to do so off the bench.
Montpellier could go either way, but their track-record away from home at this stage in the competition is not good. The likes of Francois Trinh-Duc, Rene Ranger and Timoci Nagusa were also left out on the travelling squad and they have entrusted their fortunes to 20-year-old out-half Enzo Selponi and 21-year-old scrum-half Eric Escande.
It would be naive to expect much, with undermotivated French sides performing with even less credit than usual in this year’s Heineken Cup. If Ulster can bring set piece solidity and tempo, they have more than enough to secure a good win and set up a crunch clash with the Tigers next week.
Heineken Cup prediction:
Ulster 38-10 Montpellier
Ulster: J Payne, A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy, P Jackson, R Pienaar, T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (Captain), 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: 15 Floch, 14 Artru, 13 Tuitavake, 12 Combezou, 11 Dupont, 10 Selponi, 9 Escande, 1 Leleimalefaga, 2 Geli (c), 3 Bustos, 4 Demarco, 5 Watchou, 6 Galletier, 7 Bias, 8 Beattie.
Replacements: 16 Bianchin, 17 Nariashvili, 18 Fa'anunu, 19 Ivaldi, 20 Quercy, 21 Paillaugue, 22 Berard, 23 Nagusa.