Ulster are sure to give it their all in pursuit of the win which will see them qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time since the 1998/99 season. Hosts Aironi have nothing but pride to play for, but their shock victory over Biarritz Olympique shows just what they are capable of.
HEINEKEN CUP: POOL 4: Saturday, January 22
AIRONI RUGBY (4th) v ULSTER (2nd), Stadio Zaffanella, 2.30pm local time/1.30pm Irish time (live Sky Sports 1/HD1)
Team News: Front rowers Nigel Brady and Declan Fitzpatrick have been added to the Ulster team for Saturday’s all-important Heineken Cup Pool 4 match against Auroni Rugby.
The selected Ulster side shows two changes to the one that started last weekend’s gutsy 9-6 victory over Biarritz Olympique at Ravenhill.
Hooker and team captain Rory Best has been ruled out of contention, having not fully recovered from the rib injury he sustained in the closing stages against Biarritz.
His place has been taken by Nigel Brady, who was a starter for the back-to-backs over Bath before Christmas. South African lock Johann Muller will captain the side.
Prop BJ Botha, who damaged ligaments in his elbow last time out, is also unavailable for this ‘must win’ game. The fit-again Declan Fitzpatrick comes in for Botha, for what will be his first start in this season’s Heineken Cup.
Ulster are fighting it out with Biarritz for the top spot in Pool 4 and while Aironi are bottom of the pile with no possibility of qualifying, Brian McLaughlin knows the Italians will not make it easy for his side.
“You only have to look at Aironi. They’re a very proud lot and certainly at home, they’ll be a very difficult nut to crack,” said the Ulster boss.
“They’ve already beaten Biarritz there in this competition, and we had a tough game against them when we went out there (in the league) in September so we’re under no illusions.
“We know it’s going to be an exceptionally difficult task, but if we want to get where we want to be well then we’ve got to go there and win. It’s as simple as that – that’s our focus for this week.”
Other results last weekend mean that Ulster now only need a win, by any margin, to qualify for the quarter-finals.
The stakes are certainly high, but McLaughlin is wont to change the approach which served the province so well in round 5.
“The Glasgow result last week was certainly a plus for us, but we’ve got to focus in on the job we’ve got to do. We can’t worry about what’s happening elsewhere,” he added.
“We have to be very, very much focusing and emphasising us – we have to get a win first and foremost. If we can put the icing on the cake with a bonus point, we’ll worry about that later in the game.”
Meanwhile, Italian international Josh Sole is the only forward to be retained in the Aironi starting line-up from last Saturday’s 55-16 drubbing at Bath.
Rowland Phillips has bolstered his pack for the visit of quarter-final hopefuls Ulster. Regular captain Quintin Geldenhuys returns in the second row alongside the experienced Marco Bortolami.
Matias Aguero, hooker Fabio Ongaro and Fabio Staibano combine in the front row, and Sole, who switches to number 8, is joined in the back row by Vickus Liebenberg and Jaco Erasmus.
The back-line has also been tweaked. Pablo Canavosio has been moved from scrum half to the right wing, allowing former Saracen Mickey Wilson to come in for his first Heineken Cup start for the Italian club.
In a further positional switch, Gilberto Pavan reverts to the inside centre berth.
Ulster will also be looking to curb the influence of full-back Julien Laharrague, who won 12 caps for France, and young Kiwi out-half James Marshall, who impressed in that win over Biarritz.
AIRONI RUGBY: Julien Laharrague; Pablo Canavosio, Rodd Penney, Gilberto Pavan, Matteo Pratichetti; James Marshall, Mickey Wilson; Matias Aguero, Fabio Ongaro, Fabio Staibano, Marco Bortolami, Quintin Geldenhuys (capt), Vickus Liebenberg, Jaco Erasmus, Josh Sole.
Replacements: Roberto Santamaria, Salvatore Perugini, Alberto de Marchi, Carlo Del Fava, Aldo Birchall, Tito Tebaldi, Riccardo Bocchino, Gabriel Pizarro.
ULSTER: Adam D’Arcy; Andrew Trimble, Nevin Spence, Paddy Wallace, Simon Danielli; Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Nigel Brady, Declan Fitzpatrick, Johann Muller (capt), Dan Tuohy, Stephen Ferris, Willie Faloon, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Bryan Young, Jerry Cronin, Tim Barker, Chris Henry, Paul Marshall, Ian Whitten, David McIlwaine.
Referee: Christophe Berdos (France)
Assistant Referees: Jean-Luc Rebollal, Sebastien Minery (both France)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Aironi Rugby to win: 11/2; Draw: 30/1; Ulster to win: 1/12
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Pre-Match Quotes: Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) – “I’ve been here a while now and I’m getting used to all of the calls and codes, to playing with different guys and building relationships with the loose forwards as well as the backs.
“It just takes time to settle in nicely and I must say that the past couple of games have been really enjoyable.
“Last Saturday we had a great win, but I think we just need to come back to earth again and to channel our energies this week. There’s a big chance for us to reach the quarter-final but we can’t just sit back and relax. Aironi are a quality side so it’s a big game for us this weekend.
“In the European Cup you play some of the best sides in Europe and that’s who you want to compete with.
“It has been a good challenge for myself and the team. We have done well so far and I think we can continue for another couple of games.”
Marco Bortolami (Aironi Rugby) – “It feels like a whole new start for us now, with Rowland (Phillips) as head coach.
“We proved that we have quality and we can really play. It brings the self belief back into the team and we can start to believe we can compete against anyone.
“We proved ourselves against Biarritz, last season’s European Cup finalists, and that is huge.
“Rowland has bought the British mentality to the club and to coaching. He is putting us on the right foot for the journey we have ahead.”
Current Form – Aironi Rugby – (Magners League): Lost 33-17 away to Munster; Lost 22-15 at home to Ulster; Lost 49-10 away to the Scarlets; Lost 38-6 away to the Ospreys; Lost 10-9 at home to Edinburgh; (Heineken Cup): Lost 30-6 away to Ulster; Lost 22-6 at home to Bath; (Magners League): Lost 36-5 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 20-3 at home to the Cardiff Blues; Lost 33-8 away to Glasgow Warriors; Lost 34-17 at home to the Scarlets; (Heineken Cup): Won 28-27 at home to Biarritz Olympique; Lost 34-3 away to Biarritz Olympique; (Magners League): Lost 15-10 away to Benetton Treviso; Lost 16-15 at home to Benetton Treviso; Lost 24-13 away to the Cardiff Blues; (Heineken Cup): Lost 55-16 away to Bath
Ulster – (Magners League): Won 27-26 at home to the Ospreys; Won 22-15 away to Aironi Rugby; Won 29-21 at home to Edinburgh; Drew 15-15 away to Connacht; Won 19-17 at home to Glasgow Warriors; (Heineken Cup): Won 30-6 at home to Aironi Rugby; Lost 35-15 away to Biarritz Olympique; (Magners League): Lost 21-16 away to Edinburgh; Lost 16-6 at home to Munster; (Heineken Cup): Won 22-18 at home to Bath; Won 26-22 away to Bath; (Magners League): Lost 30-13 at home to Leinster; Lost 35-10 away to Munster; Won 32-13 at home to Benetton Treviso; (Heineken Cup): Won 9-6 at home to Biarritz Olympique
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Heineken Cup: Aironi Rugby – Points: James Marshall 16; Tries: Giulio Toniolatti, Matteo Pratichetti, James Marshall, Josh Sole 1 each; Ulster – Points: Ian Humphreys 51; Tries: Andrew Trimble 2
Previous European Meetings: 1
Friday, October 8, 2010 – Pool 4 – Ulster 30 Aironi Rugby 6, Ravenhill
Heineken Cup Records:
Aironi Rugby –
2010/11 is their debut season
2009/10: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2004/05: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2003/04: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2002/03: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool B
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool C
1995/96: Failed to qualify from Pool B