Northampton Saints, who beat Ulster in a quarter-final clash two seasons ago, play host to the province tonight as Mark Anscombe’s men look to tighten their grip on top spot in Pool 4 of the Heineken Cup.
HEINEKEN CUP POOL 4: Friday, December 7
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (2nd) v ULSTER (1st), Franklin’s Gardens, 8pm (live Sky Sports 2/HD2/BBC Radio Ulster MW/Newstalk/highlights TG4)
Team News: Head coach Mark Anscombe has named a strong starting line-up for Ulster’s vital Heineken Cup Pool 4 match against Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday.
A number of players who were rested for the trip to the Scarlets last Sunday have returned to the fold, so the team has eight personnel changes and one positional switch.
Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace and Jared Payne have been included at scrum half, inside centre and full-back respectively.
Tommy Bowe, who was on bench duty last weekend, will line out on the right wing for his 50th Heineken Cup appearance.
Bowe’s inclusion means Andrew Trimble switches to the left wing at the expense of new Ireland cap Craig Gilroy, while out-half Paddy Jackson and centre Darren Cave retain their starting places in the back-line.
Up front, Ireland internationals Rory Best and Tom Court replace Rob Herring and Callum Black in the front row alongside John Afoa, with Dan Tuohy resuming his second row partnership with captain Johann Muller.
Loose forwards Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Roger Wilson combine to form an athletic and skilful back row combination, and Ulster also have the luxury of having the impact of Nick Williams off the bench.
Ricky Lutton could make his Heineken Cup debut if he takes to the pitch at any time during Friday’s game. The 26-year-old development prop has made one previous appearance – as a replacement in the RaboDirect PRO12 win over Edinburgh last month.
Nigel Brady and Robbie Diack, along with Black, Lutton and Williams will be the forward options off the bench.
Paul Marshall, Luke Marshall and Gilroy, who all featured for the Ireland XV in their fixture with Fiji last month, will offer great quality as replacement backs.
Ulster have no new injury concerns – they are missing Stephen Ferris, who underwent surgery on his ankle on Wednesday, Declan Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson and long-term absentees Chris Farrell and Paddy McAllister.
Focusing on the forward battle in store on Friday, Anscombe said: “Northampton have a strong pack and they build their game around that. They don’t hide from that fact and they’re confident in it.
“Their set piece is very strong and we’ve got to be excited about meeting that front on. We’ve got to conquer them up front if we’re going to compete because you’ve got to have front foot ball.
“The tight five have to step up and show their qualities, but I’m confident in them, they’ve all played international rugby.”
Ulster have played 52 matches away from home in the Heineken Cup, winning only 12. In contrast, they come up against a Saints side with a record of 29 wins and only seven losses on home soil.
A 13th away success would not only secure a 50th overall tournament victory, but it would also put the Ulstermen in the driving seat for qualification to the knockout stages.
Meanwhile, Northampton Saints director of rugby Jim Mallinder says that a top performance is needed for his side to prevail in this top of the table clash.
Northampton have had an extra two days to recover from their 27-16 Aviva Premiership win away to Sale Sharks, and Mallinder has kept faith with the back-line from that game.
The return of England international Courtney Lawes in the second row is one of two changes up front.
Mark Sorenson makes way for Lawes while Tom Wood, another player involved in England’s shock defeat of New Zealand, gets the nod over Phil Dowson at openside flanker.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: Ben Foden; Ken Pisi, George Pisi, Dom Waldouck, Jamie Elliott; Ryan Lamb, Martin Rogerts; Soane Tonga’uiha, Dylan Hartley (capt), Brian Mujati, Samu Manoa, Courtney Lawes, Callum Clark, Tom Wood, GJ van Velze.
Replacements: Mike Haywood, Alex Waller, Paul Doran Jones, Mark Sorenson, Phil Dowson, Lee Dickson, Stephen Myler, Tom May.
ULSTER: Jared Payne; Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa, Johann Muller (capt), Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Callum Black, Ricky Lutton, Robbie Diack, Nick Williams, Paul Marshall, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)
Assistant Referees: Patrick Pechambert, Sabastien Cloute (both France)
Television Match Official: Laurent Valin (France)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Northampton Saints to win: 4/6; Draw: 20/1; Ulster to win: 13/10
Pre-Match Quotes: Tommy Bowe (Ulster) – “We’ve had a good start to the season, but games don’t come much bigger than this and two victories (in this double header) would really set us up to go through to the quarter-finals. The stakes are huge.
“Northampton have a good pack, some very attacking runners and pose threats all over the pitch, but we are more than capable of going there and getting a win.
“The five-day turnaround from the Scarlets match is not ideal but we have recovered well and had some good training sessions.”
Jim Mallinder (Northampton Saints) – “Ulster have a strong winning habit this season and are coming to Franklin’s Gardens in the best possible form. Their squad is full of talented players who time and again this season have shown a never-say-die attitude and the ability to get the scores when they need them.
“It is going to be a massive challenge for us, we know that. But training has been very positive this week and we are coming into the game on the back of three successive wins ourselves.
“However all of the players know that they will have to take a step up from those performances and play for the full 80 minutes if we are to get the result we want.”
Current Form – Northampton Saints – (Aviva Premiership): Won 24-19 away to Gloucester; Won 24-21 at home to Exeter Chiefs; Won 18-14 away to Bath; Won 37-31 at home to Worcester Warriors; Won 24-6 at home to London Wasps; Lost 39-17 away to London Irish; (Heineken Cup): Won 24-15 at home to Glasgow Warriors; Lost 21-16 away to Castres Olympique; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 16-6 at home to Saracens; Lost 16-12 away to Leicester Tigers; (LV= Cup): Lost 31-30 at home to Harlequins; Won 30-20 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons; (Aviva Premiership): Won 23-16 at home to London Welsh; Won 27-16 away to Sale Sharks
Ulster – (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 18-10 at home to Glasgow Warriors; Won 16-13 away to the Ospreys; Won 20-19 at home to Munster; Won 48-19 away to the Cardiff Blues; Won 25-0 at home to Connacht; (Heineken Cup): Won 41-17 at home to Castres Olympique; Won 19-8 away to Glasgow Warriors; (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 46-19 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 45-20 at home to Edinburgh; Won 27-25 away to Zebre; Won 16-15 away to Benetton Treviso; Won 19-12 away to the Scarlets
Previous European Meetings: 3
Sunday, October 13, 2002 – Pool 6 – Northampton Saints 32 Ulster 9, Franklin’s Gardens
Friday, January 17, 2003 – Pool 6 – Ulster 16 Northampton Saints 13, Ravenhill
Sunday, April 10, 2011 – Quarter-final – Northampton Saints 23 Ulster 13, stadium:mk
Match Facts And Figures –
– Northampton fare worse against teams from Ireland than any other nation in this tournament. They have lost 8 of 12 matches against Irish provinces
– Northampton have conceded turnovers on 38 occasions this season, more than any other team in the Heineken Cup
– Saints winger Ken Pisi is the leading metre maker in this season’s Heineken Cup so far, carrying the ball for 272 metres in his two appearances
– Ulster are chasing their 50th win overall in the Heineken Cup. They have won 49 of their 105 contests to date
Heineken Cup Records:
Northampton Saints –
2011/12: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2009/10: Reached the quarter-finals
2006/07: Reached the semi-finals
2004/05: Reached the quarter-finals
2003/04: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2002/03: Reached the quarter-finals
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2010/11: Reached the quarter-finals
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