Two former champions meet this afternoon in Franklin’s Gardens, when the 2000 winners, Northampton play host to Ulster,the side that lifted the trophy in 1999.
Another English club with a new coach. Northampton, like Gloucester, have thrived on the fresh coaching style of New Zealander Wayne Smith, notching up four wins out of six and sit in fourth place in the Zurich Premiership. The last, being the 34-20 win at Franklin’s Gardens last weekend over Warren Gatland’s Wasps. Ulster need a decent Heineken Cup run, having not qualified for the quarter-finals since Harry Williams’ navigated the good ship, with head sailors Humphreys and Mason leading the way in an emotional 1999 Cup triumph.
Coach Alan Solomons views the game as being won and lost in the forwards. “We have an extremely solid pack at the moment and if we get our set pieces and restarts right, and pay attention to our defence, then we will be there at the finish.”
He is right in his estimation of his side’s confidence. Ulster have begun to string together a series of results, culminating in the fine win over Caerphilly, notable tries for Tony McWhirter and Shane Stewart. Southern Hemisphere recruits Warren Brosnihan and Robbie Kempson know that they must produce the goods for their plane ticket purchasers.
The home side are averaging twenty seven points per game and are adept at stealing away wins, so Ulster cannot have a reliance on a Ravenhill win over Smith’s midlanders. That said, Northampton have hit a wall in the Heineken Cup since their Twickenham triumph. Finishing a lowly third in their pool in ’01 and settling for runners-up position after their three pool games last season.
Ryan Constable is out following a concussion suffered during the northern province’s emphatic 67-15 away win in Caerphilly last Saturday. The attacking centre will be missed today, as his ability to carve open a defence is a quality that is not abundant in the Ulster back division. James Topping has been recalled at right wing for Sunday’s game, following his recovery from a calf injury. He replaces the unfortunate young Ballymena wing, Scott Young, who has started every game that Topping has missed.
The 2000 Heineken Cup champions need a recovery of form from off colour goal kicker Paul Grayson. He lead his team to a 9-8 victory over Munster in Twickenham three years ago, and if he regains his confidence at number 10, Northampton can live up to their billing as pool favourites and likely semi-finalists. Ulster should look out for the fit again John Leslie at centre, who has quite a productive partnership with Grayson when on song. They still aren’t the complete article, with England’s second mouth almighty, Matt Dawson out with a persistent injury.
With no Italian side in Pool 6, Alan Solomons’ side must take something from either Franklin’s Gardens or Cardiff. It is more likely to be the Welsh capital that Ulster proffer some valuable points.
Northampton’s Stephen Thompson has been banned for one match after receiving three yellow cards since the end of November last year. He will miss his club’s next Heineken Cup clash at Biarritz on October 19th.