Ulster take on perennial contenders Leicester in fortress Ravenhill this evening. Ulster’s stunning 33-0 victory a number of years ago has been mentioned frequently in the build up to this game but does that have any bearing on events this evening?
The answer is no. While the jersies are the same and it is a post World Cup season, much has changed. Leicester won back to back Heineken Cups in 2001 and 2002 with Dean Richards at the helm. Led by Martin Johnson with Neil Back, Austin Healy and Martin Corry as lieutenants, the Tigers were a formidable force at the beginning of the century. It is a decade since that last Heineken win and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. Leicester still produce good players but now can’t always keep them. Lewis Moody and Sam Vesty made the move to Bath, unheard of during the days of their pomp. The Mole has to confess to not understanding the impact that the salary cap has had on Premiership teams but it is noticeable that they are less competitive now than they were a decade ago.
Ulster signed John Afoa and initially he didn’t seem too bothered, going back to NZ for Jerome Kaino’s wedding and staying there a few days over. Since his return, he has been very impressive, his set piece competence only a part of a game that includes ball carrying prowess and crunching tackles. Ulster got beasted by Biarritz last year when Tom Court moved to tight head but that won’t happen this year if Afoa is on the pitch. The platform provided by Afoa allows Stephen Ferris and co the opportunity to carry. Ferris has enjoyed a remarkable injury free run since the World Cup and has also managed to stay out of the media. Dan Tuohy is another galloping Ulsterman making waves, with a national second row spot up for grabs. Ulster seemed to have more cutting edge with Pienaar at 10 and Marshall at 9 but iHumph has got the nod and is joined in the midfield by Paddy Wallace.
Leicester are missing Manu Tuilagi and Toby Flood from their midfield and it remains to be seen how good Billy Twelvetrees is. He’s got a name straight out of the Hobbit but missed out on selection as one of Lancaster’s preciouses. Craig Newby is a loss in the back row from previous years as he offered toughness and versatility. Lewis Deacon, highly regarded at Welford Road, is another loss although their front row is still strong.
The bookies make Ulster -2.5 point favourites. With the crowd behind them and a first choice selection out, they should beat that and travel to the Auvergne with it all to play for.