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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 28 November, 2014

Leicester v Ulster: 3 key battles to decide who earns a home quarter-final

Ulster will have to come out on top of these match-ups to maintain their status as top seeds.

Image: ©INPHO/Presseye/Brian Little

IT ALL COMES down to this.

Ever since the Tigers went to Ravenhill and escaped with a losing bonus point,Ulster have known that a whole lot would be riding on this final pool game  in the bear pit that is Welford Road.

What even the most red-handed of Ulster fans may not have predicted, however, was that they would cross Irish Sea with a 100% record and both sides would have had qualification already assured.

So the pressure is off and both sides can play fast and loose, right? Well, probably not, this scrap has got home advantage in a quarter-final at stake – and that fixture could throw up another meeting between these sides.

So strap yourselves in for the rugby highlight of the weekend featuring these potentially pivotal head-to-heads.

Dan Cole v Callum Black

In truth, the set-piece was such a crucial element of the last meeting between these sides that we could have put a front row on this edition of 3KB.

The prospect of Marcos Ayerza and John Afoa locking horns or Rory Best’s latest tussle (in the tight and in the loose) with Tom Youngs  should be more than enough to mention any rugby fan’s appetite. That said, the selection of Black was the one that instantly jumped out from this Ulster XV.

The 27-year-old loose-head has grown in stature and consistency over the past year, but the step up in class at a white-hot atmosphere in Welford Road will be a major test. And that’s even before you consider the man opposite him is the England and Lions tight-head.

Anscombe obviously has huge trust in Black, but the forwards on his bench clearly indicate he’s looking for a big second wind and you would be surprised if Tom Court does not have at least 30 minutes to play.

Ben Youngs v Ruan Pienaar

While Paddy Jackson has assumed much of the play-making responsibly for the northern province, the visitors in Leicester will require the experience of the Springbok to dictate the pace when they have possession.

Leicester too rely heavily on their scrum-half; Youngs injects pace into an otherwise tame (relative to their pack) back-line and at times is used to break the line in set moves on first phase rather than being limited to the traditional duties of a number nine.

Niall Morris v Craig Gilroy

Eight days after getting a big whack in the nose and suffering a suspected concussion in the act of attempting/sabotaging a try, Gilroy has come through the cognitive tests and will line up opposite a fellow winger omitted from Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad.

At Ravenhill, Morris was ultimately out-classed (and notably out-jumped) by Tommy Bowe, but Gilroy has so far struggled to match the brilliant form that earned him international honours in 2012.

The opposing packs have no doubt made a pact that Saturday will be no showcase for wingers, but attrition rates could well make Gilroy’s elusive running style a very valuable commodity when spaces open up in the second half.

Leicester Tigers: M Tait; N Morris, M Smith, A Allen, V Goneva; T Flood, B Youngs: M Ayerza, T Youngs, D Cole; E Slater, G Kitchener; J Gibson, J Salvi, J Crane.

Replacements: R Hawkins, B Stankovich, F Balmain, L Deacon, S Mafi, D Mele, O Williams, S Hamilton.

Ulster: J Payne; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (c), D Tuohy; R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams.

Replacements: R Herring, T Court, R Lutton, I Henderson, R Diack, P Marshall, D McIlwaine, M Allen.

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