/ Rugby

Pro12 previews: Stephen Ferris return to boost Ulster

Updated: Friday, 21 Mar 2014 19:32 | Comments

Stephen Ferris is back in the Ulster starting line-up
Stephen Ferris is back in the Ulster starting line-up

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By Tadhg Peavoy

Last week was a momentous week in Irish rugby as the men in green secured a second Six Nations title in six years. In 2009, Irish provinces went on to dominate European club rugby too with Leinster winning the Heineken Cup, and Munster winning the Pro12.

A repeat of that treble is most certainly the goal for the IRFU again this season, and with Leinster, Munster and Ulster the top three teams in the Pro12 table at present, the trio are all on course to contest the play-offs of that competition.

Tonight, Leinster and Ulster will bid to keep their title bids alive with victories over Zebre and Edinburgh respectively.

Leinster v Zebre, the RDS, 7.15pm

In week 17, Leinster welcome Italian strugglers Zebre to the Royal Dublin Society Arena. The talking point is Ian Madigan at out-half, who makes his 100th appearance for the Lions, in a very strong team.

Ireland internationals pepper the backline in the form of Isaac Boss, Luke Fitzgerald and Fergus McFadden, in a match that is live on RTÉ Two. 

They feature alongside centre Noel Reid – one of Leinster’s most consistent performers this season – and Springbok Zane Kirchner at full-back.

It’s a backline not many teams in Europe could live with and Zebre’s is going to struggle.

The fact that the Italian side are rock bottom of the league is down to a plethora of reasons, but a large part of it is their back division’s inefficiency to both create and defend.

I feel they’ll encounter many of the same problems tonight.

Much of what is good from them will come through Giovanbattista Venditti at second centre and Kameli Ratuvou at 12 inside him.

At nine Brendon Leonard has been the definition of consistency all season. But another key problem has been that the backline have lived off scraps as their pack is often outfought in the trenches.

The experience of Marco Bortolami at five is Zebre’s fulcrum, around which Italy have Tommaso D’Apice at hooker and the superb Andries van Schalkwyk at seven as liutenants.

However, Leinster have a wonderful blend of experience and youth in their pack, with Richardt Strauss, captain Leo Cullen, Mike McCarthy, Kevin McLaughlin and Jordi Murphy forming the spine of a pack that will bully Zebre around the park, and deliver a platform for Leinster to win this tie, taking their unbeaten run to nine matches in all competitions.

Verdict: Leinster by 25.

Edinburgh v Ulster, Murrayfield, 7.45pm

When Stephen Ferris made his return to competitive action last weekend against Scarlets, the Irish rugby world smiled; a fit Ferris is something to behold, and is rightfully regarded as one of the very best flankers in world rugby.

His return to action is like a new signing for the Ulstermen, and in turn will boost Ireland in June, should Joe Schmidt decide to bring him on this summer’s two-Test tour of Argentina.

His abrasiveness and skill on the ball will be a major boost to Ulster as they head to Scotland for a tricky tie with Edinburgh.

Incidentally, the 28-year-old has been added to Ulster's Heineken Cup squad. 

The Scottish side, at home, are very difficult opponents, demonstrated by their having won four out of their last five matches at Murrayfield.

That said, Ulster are on a seven-match unbeaten run and they have been playing confident, free-flowing rugby of late.

Ulster name John Afoa at tighthead, Johann Muller and Iain Henderson in the second row, and Ferris, Sean Doyle and Roger Wilson in a hugely exciting back row.

Paddy Jackson slots in at No 10, with Luke Marshall, Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy, Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne appearing in an electric backline. Michael Heaney starts at nine for the injured Ruan Pienaar.

Can Edinburgh live with that line-up? I don't think so.

Grayson Hart and Carl Bezuidenhout are a fine pairing at halfback. And Andries Strauss and Sam Beard offer decent physicality in the centre, while Tom Brown, Dougie Fife and Jack Cuthbert will lend gas and creativity in the back three.

That said, they are facing one of the best backlines in Europe, and to get their noses in front they will all have to outperform their opposite numbers – a big ask.

Edinburgh’s front row is their strength in the pack where Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and WP Nel form a formidable unit. Grant Gilchrist and Izak can der Westhuizen slot into the engine room, with Cornell du Preez the standout back row.

The battle up front will have little between it, both packs are fairly evenly matched, and playing on home turf will raise Edinburgh’s game a few notches.

However, behind the pack, Ulster should have more skill, confidence and pace, which should give them their first away victory over Edinburgh since January 2012.

Verdict: Ulster to win by five.

Live television coverage of Leinster v Zebre from 19:00 on Friday 21 March on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only).

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