“Two new teams, different coaches, different players. History counts for nothing.” Ulster Head Coach Dan McFarland.
European rugby has arrived and Ulster have their work cut out with a tough looking group. They are joined in Pool 4 by Scarlets, Racing 92 and Leicester.
The Ulstermen will take on the Tigers at the Kingspan this Saturday and realistically they need to pick up a win if they have the ambition to qualify from the group.
Ulster and Leicester, in theory, are the two weakest teams in the group given that Scarlets were semi-finalists and Racing runners-up last year. However, Ulster are the type of side that teams want to avoid; historically, Kingspan is a fortress and the attacking talent at their disposal means they can beat anyone on their day.
Leicester too should never be underestimated; they have new management in former Ireland player Geordan Murphy and are a proud club with a huge European pedigree.
Ulster have won all four home games against Leicester by an average margin of 23 points; it’s a shame McFarland said history counts for nothing!
Ulster’s early season form perhaps lulled their fans into a false sense of security. They started well with Dan McFarland’s attacking brand of rugby clear for all to see. However, in recent times, the lack of squad depth has been exposed against both Munster and Connacht.
We were bullied down in Limerick and lost to Connacht for the first time since 1960 the following week. European competition could come at the perfect time for Ulster as they look to get the season back on track.
Like Ulster, Leicester have had a mixed start to the season. Under the guidance of Murphy, there has been a shift from the traditional forward based game to a free-flowing style led by England international George Ford. The fly-half has found his form again, linking up well with Jonny May. Thankfully for Ulster, May is unavailable for selection.
The Tigers unforgivably lost at home to Worcester, a side who are likely to be in a relegation battle. However, they have bounced back with two wins on the trot and will take this confidence to Belfast.
These big games are so often decided on the gain line battle and who can set up a platform for their team to attack from. If conditions allow, both these teams will use their backs which is why I see the key battle to be between the centres.
Both centres ooze class in their own right. When you look at Manu, his abrasive style and physicality make him a huge threat, especially when his English halfbacks can put him into space.
Addison, on the other hand, offers more subtlety to his game. He has great special awareness using deft touches to put his teammates into space. He hits very good lines and his footwork will test the Leicester defence.
Given that these two will face up to one another, it will be fascinating to see how they manage each other’s threats and try to use their own skills against each other.
“Leicester game will set the tone” Andrew Trimble (Former Ulster player)
I can’t emphasise enough how important picking up home wins and bonus points are in European competition. Trimble wisely highlights that this game will set the tone either way for Ulster, with a win leaving them in a good position or a loss leaving them in the “do or die” category, facing tough away trips.
Despite missing May, Leicester do have some potent threats in the backline. They also have more options to come off the bench including established international Matt Toomua.
However, I believe familiar surroundings and the home fans should be enough to inspire Ulster to an opening win.