Ulster face familiar opponents tonight in the form of Aironi. The Italian newcomers have lost three times to Brian McLaughlin’s men already this season, and the odds are stacked against them avoiding a fourth defeat.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Friday, March 4
ULSTER (6th) v AIRONI RUGBY (12th), Ravenhill, 7.05pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Springbok Ruan Pienaar will start at out-half for Ulster against Aironi in Friday’s Magners League match at Ravenhill.
Head coach Brian McLaughlin has named Ruan Pienaar at out-half in place of Ian Humphreys, while Paul Marshall comes in to fill the scrum half position vacated by the South African.
Humphreys is being rested as a precaution after sustaining a slight hamstring injury in training.
McLaughlin has also changed the entire front row with Paddy McAllister, Nigel Brady and Tom Court replacing Bryan Young, Andi Kyriacou and Declan Fitzpatrick.
The final change to the starting line-up sees Paddy Wallace join fellow Ireland international Andrew Trimble in the back-line as he replaces Luke Marshall at inside centre.
The second row and back row combinations remain unchanged from last weekend’s bonus point win over Cardiff and Johann Muller will again captain the side.
Robbie Diack and Scotland’s Simon Danielli have been named amongst the replacements and will hope to make a big impact off the bench.
Ulster have beaten Aironi on three occasions this season and a fourth victory would continue their charge towards the Magners League play-offs.
Speaking ahead of the game, McLaughlin said: “Last Friday night we showed how we can play and the way we want to play.
“We’re very pleased with how the youngsters played for us and that is all credit to our Academy and the work of Jonny Bell, Gary Longwell and Niall Malone. We have increased the depth of our squad greatly.
“(The Aironi fixture) is a potential banana skin for us. It’s a game that if we are complacent in, Aironi are a good enough side to smack you in the teeth and that’s something we’ve got to be very careful of.
“They are not an easy side to play against but the emphasis must be on how we perform,” he added.
Meanwhile, Aironi’s Welsh coach Rowland Phillips has made changes to the team that lined out against league leaders Munster last Sunday.
New Zealander James Marshall will switch to full-back, with Riccardo Bocchino coming in at out-half. The young Italian number 10 will also take over the place-kicking duties, which proved a problem for Aironi last time out.
Danwel Demas and Kaine Robertson both return on the wings, while in the pack the only alterations are in the front row.
Ulises Gamboa replaces Fabio Staibano at tighthead prop and Robert Santamaria will start at hooker. The visitors’ replacements bench includes Tomasso d’Apice and Tito Tebaldi.
ULSTER: Adam D’Arcy; Andrew Trimble, Nevin Spence, Paddy Wallace, Craig Gilroy; Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall; Paddy McAllister, Nigel Brady, Tom Court, Johann Muller (capt), Tim Barker, Chris Henry, Willie Faloon, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Declan Fitzpatrick, Jerry Cronin, Neil McComb, Robbie Diack, Luke Marshall, Simon Danielli, Tommy Seymour.
AIRONI RUGBY: James Marshall; Kaine Robertson, Gilberto Pavan, Matteo Pratichetti, Danwel Demas; Riccardo Bocchino, Pietro Travagli; Alberto de Marchi, Roberto Santamaria, Ulises Gamboa, Joshua Furno, Marco Bortolami (capt), Josh Sole, Gareth Krause, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Tommaso d’Apice, Luca Redolfini, Andrea de Marchi, George Biagi, Nicola Cattina, Tito Tebaldi, Gabriel Pizarro, Giulio Rubini.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, John Carvill (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/100; Draw: 35/1; Aironi Rugby to win: 16/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Tom Court (Ulster) – “Everything is starting to work well. The combinations are working well and the boys up here are starting to get confident that we can take on these guys, match them and beat them.
“Maybe at the start of the season some people raised their eyebrows a bit, but now they’ve begun to realise that we have consolidated and that Brian (McLaughlin) and the rest of the guys are doing a really good job.
“I think the performance (against Cardiff) had some of the best rugby that we’ve played this season. The forwards did well and the backs looked great.
“Definitely this is the best Ulster squad I’ve known since I came here. In the past it was a bit up and down and the mood sort of ebbed and flowed. And, obviously, there was a fairly high turnover of coaches.
“But now everyone has bedded in well and I think the hard work David Humphreys has done in trying to put a squad mentality together with Brian and the rest of the coaches, and with Shane (Logan) coming in and putting his ethos of things in as well, everyone’s really buying into it.
“Everyone’s working together and this is the best it’s been in my time with Ulster, and I’m pushing six years here now.
“I think the boys see that it can still be a lot better too. There’s no reason why we can’t push on and be the leading province in Ireland.
“It has been a real combination of belief and respect. Within the squad and within the coaching staff you can see that everyone is working towards the same goal and everyone wants the same thing.
“There are guys who have been here and playing well while you’ve been away (with the internationals), so obviously, if you slot straight back in – and take somebody else’s spot – then regardless of where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing that other guy is going to feel a bit bad.
“That can make you feel a little bit sheepish coming back in. There’s a lot of pressure on you, because you’ve got to perform since you’ve taken somebody else’s spot, and then from a more selfish viewpoint, you’ve got to perform in order to keep your place in the Irish set-up.
“So for guys like Paddy (Wallace) and myself coming back this week, there’s pressure on two fronts – from the guy whose place in the Ulster side you’ve just taken and because you know that if you want to win a place in the Irish team you have to perform better than the guy who is currently keeping you out.”
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Magners League: Ulster – Points: Ruan Pienaar 62; Tries: Craig Gilroy 6; Aironi Rugby – Points: Ludovic Mercier 44; Tries: Nick Williams 3
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, September 11, 2010 – Aironi Rugby 15 Ulster 22, Stadio Zaffanella
– Ulster have won five of their last six matches in all competitions, their only defeat being a 23-22 loss at the Ospreys in the Magners League on February 13
– The Ulstermen have met Italian opposition on nine previous occasions and won all nine of those matches
– Aironi are still without a win in the Magners League following their latest defeat, 20-10, at the hands of Munster at Stadio Zaffanella last Sunday
– Ulster won 22-15 when the two teams met in Viadana in round 6 of this season’s league