Ulster are hoping to hit the ground running in the Heineken Cup tonight as they entertain tournament newcomers Aironi Rugby at Ravenhill. When the sides met in the Magners League last month, only seven points separated the sides by the finish at Stadio Zaffanella – so Brian McLaughlin’s men know just how durable the Italians can be.
HEINEKEN CUP: POOL 4: Friday, October 8
ULSTER v AIRONI RUGBY, Ravenhill, 7.30pm
Team News: Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has finalised his team and replacements for their first Heineken Cup Pool 4 opener against Aironi Rugby.
Ulster’s selected team shows just two changes to the side that started last weekend’s league win over Glasgow Warriors.
Ian Humphreys comes in at out-half to replace Niall O’Connor and make his first start of the season, while in the second row, Tim Barker gets the nod and Dan Tuohy will start from the replacements bench.
Prop BJ Botha, who sustained a wrist injury against Connacht recently, had been named in the extended squad but suffered a setback earlier in the week and has consequently not been included.
Ulster’s new South African contingent of Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg will make their Heineken Cup debuts from scrum half, lock and blindside flanker respectively.
There are three other newcomers to European rugby on the Ulster bench, in the form of props Paddy McAllister and Alan Whitten and winger David McIlwaine – all aged 21.
Muller, who has captained Ulster in the absence of Rory Best this season, said: “I’ve followed the Heineken Cup for the past five or six years from South Africa. It’s a wonderful tournament with a great history and tradition attached to it.
“I know it’s going to be a different intensity to what we have seen so far but I’m ready for that.
“When it’s time to step up, you’ve got to lift your performance in order to cope with the increased physicality and speed of the game at that higher level.
“The Heineken Cup is a big occasion for everyone and just as I hope the supporters will see a big difference in the level of our performance, so I think we will see a difference in the intensity of the support.”
Meanwhile, Italian international Carlo Del Fava will return to Ravenhill to captain Aironi against his former side.
Del Fava, the South African-born lock, spent two seasons at Ulster before joining Viadana last year, and then new Aironi for their debut season in the Magners League and Heineken Cup.
He will skipper Aironi for their first European match, with regular captain Quintin Geldenhuys absent due to injury.
Injuries have hampered Aironi’s build-up, with the likes of French international Julien Laharrague and Italy hooker Fabio Ongaro missing from the starting line-up.
From the team that started last weekend’s one-point league loss to Edinburgh, Danwel Demas switches to full-back, and Giovanbattista Venditti comes in on the left wing.
There are two changes in the front row as Roberto Santamaria replaces Ongaro and Luca Redolfini is preferred to the benched Salvatore Perugini.
Geldenhuys’ spot in the second row goes to former Italy captain Marco Bortolami and Aldo Birchall dons the number 7 jersey in the injury-enforced absence of Josh Sole.
Former Gloucester out-half Ludovic Mercier and ex-Munster back rower Nick Williams are among the more experienced members of the side, with lively scrum half Tito Tebaldi one of their best players to date in the league.
New Zealander Rodd Penney, the former Saracens centre, could also have an impact.
ULSTER: Jamie Smith; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Simon Danielli; Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar; Bryan Young, Rory Best (capt), Tom Court, Johann Muller, Tim Barker, Pedrie Wannenburg, Chris Henry, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Paddy McAllister, Alan Whitten, Dan Tuohy, Willie Faloon, Paul Marshall, Ian Whitten, David McIlwaine.
AIRONI RUGBY: Danwel Demas; Giiulio Toniolatti, Rodd Penney, Gilberto Pavan, Giovanbattista Venditti; Ludovic Mercier, Tito Tebaldi; Alberto de Marchi, Roberto Santamaria, Luca Redolfini, Carlo del Fava (capt), Marco Bortolami, Andrea Benatti, Aldo Birchall, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Luigi Ferraro, Andrea de Marchi, Salvatore Perugini, Vickus Liebenberg, Nicola Cattina, Pablo Canavosio, Gabriel Pizarro, Riccardo Bocchino.
Referee: Peter Allan (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Graham Knox, Alan Forrest (both Scotland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/33; Draw: 66/1; Aironi Rugby to win: 13/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Brian McLaughlin (Ulster) – “(The unbeaten run in the league) is something which is good for confidence, but it doesn’t mean anything really, in terms of Europe. This is a fresh competition and the Heineken Cup is going to be a step-up and we know we need to get better.
“We know that if you want to succeed in Europe you have to play well away from home. We let slip a great chance of winning in Edinburgh last season, before finally getting our first win in the competition on English soil against Bath.
“That was our first away win since 2006 and we know we’ve got to get something from our games on the road against Bath again, Biarritz Olympique and Aironi.
“We have Aironi first up at Ravenhill, which we want to make a fortress in Europe. We won our three home games in Europe last season and want that run to continue.
“We know we have not performed as we would have liked to in recent matches, but the key is we kept on winning and that is a major plus going into this game.
“Aironi present a different Italian challenge than clubs from there previously in Europe. They are a provincial side and include a wealth of internationals in almost every position, so we know we’ll have to play well to make a winning start to the pool.”
Quintin Geldenhuys (Aironi Rugby) – “We have got Ulster in our pool and we know them pretty well already. We played them in the league recently and just lost out by seven points, but they scored an interception and before that we were right in the game.
“It is a game we have targeted and as it is our first in the Heineken Cup, it is very important to us.
“We know that they will come at us strong and they will be looking for a good win at home, but hopefully we can show them what we can do.
“The season is very long and the intensity is going to take its toll. We have had three hard games on the road, so we are being careful and resting our squad well.
“Our squad is small and we need to look after all of our guys and target games we believe we can get something from and focus on those.
“We have got about 11 players out injured but we are getting some of those back in time for Europe and that will increase competition for places, which is really healthy.”
Current Form – 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
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
Previous European Meetings: 0
Heineken Cup Records:
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
Aironi Rugby –
2010/11 is their debut season