ULSTER HAVE THE advantage of starting Pool 5 of the Heineken Cup at home in Ravenhill but even still, the Leicester Tigers will provide a stern test.
Two seasons ago, the northern province blasted past the Premiership champions in Belfast, winning on a scoreline of 41-7 and notching the bonus point that proved crucial to their quarter-final qualification. It had been a different story at Welford Road, with Ulster losing 20-9 after failing to break down the Tigers’ defence.
There have been changes to the backroom team at Leicester since, with Matt O’Connor moving on to the Leinster job and Irish international Geordan Murphy switching to a coaching role. The Tigers will still bring quality, so here’s what Ulster need to be prepared for.
The Tigers have enjoyed a solid start to the Premiership season and find themselves third after five rounds. Having opened with a bonus point 32-15 victory against Worcester, they suffered their only hiccup of the season so far in round two, a 27-20 defeat away to Bath. Richard Cockerill’s side are usually attacking-minded in approach, and 15 tries in the domestic league so far point to a continuation of that.
Niki Goneva is their leading try scorer with three and the Fijian appears to be enjoying his recent move into the 13 shirt to replace Manu Tuilagi. Leicester’s most recent outing saw them draw 19-19 at home to Northampton, with the leveling score coming just five minutes before the final whistle. In an extremely physical contest, the Tigers’ scrambling defence and refusal to give up were impressive.
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Geoff Parling would certainly have considered himself unlucky not to start the first Lions Test during the summer but when Paul O’Connell’s injury gave him a chance for the second, he took it with both hands. The England second row is excellent at the lineout and will target Rory Best’s throwing. At hooker is Tom Youngs, whose mobility and speed give Leicester a constant ball-carrying option.
Youngs’ younger brother, Ben, is a threatening presence at scrum-half whenever his pack gets on top. Given front-foot possession, the 24-year-old is intelligent and has the pace to go through gaps around the fringes of rucks. His service to Toby Flood will be important to the out-half’s performance. In the centre, Anthony Allen has been a rock for the Tigers since joining in 2009, but continues to be ignored by England.
Players to watch out for
Given the recent spate of coverage on Niall Morris, the Dublin-born fullback won’t be under the radar of too many Irish fans ahead of Friday night’s game. The 25-year-old featured in our ‘5 players to watch out for in this season’s Heineken Cup’ and he will be eager to impress Joe Schmidt even further.
Less heralded on these shores is Australian openside Julien Salvi, 27, whose path at the Brumbies was blocked by George Smith. He is a ‘classic’ openside, stealing ball, linking forwards to backs and covering every blade of grass. Even more noticeable should be loose head prop Logovi’i Mulipola with his long, flowing locks. The Samoan weighs in at 125kg and is a very useful battering ram for Leicester in open play.
Murphy has moved into the role of assistant coach at Welford Road. ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan.
Cockerill’s men do the basics very well; their lineout runs smoothly through Parling and Louis Deacon, their scrum is generally strong with Dan Cole at tight head, and a back line coached by Irishmen Paul Burke and Geordan Murphy is creative and effective. The Tigers do nothing revolutionary but they are far from limited.
Their attacking play with Toby Flood at 10 is inventive and dynamic, and they will be looking to continue with a formula that brought them Premiership success last season. A quarter-final loss to Toulon in France will still rankle with the ultra-competitive Cockerill and his sheer passion for the club will drive the players as they look to go two steps further this season.
Leicester’s performances away from home in the Heineken Cup have been a problem. Indeed, the East Midlands clubs have won just one of their last six away games in Europe, a 14-13 victory in Treviso. Cockerill won’t need to remind his players of the 41-7 defeat in Ravenhill two years ago, but the excellent home performance that day is the benchmark Ulster must aim for.
The Tigers are without two of their best players, having lost flanker Tom Croft for the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery and explosive centre Manu Tuilagi with a shorter-term chest muscle injury. The two England and Lions internationals are big losses, meaning this is as good a time as any to welcome the Tigers to Belfast.