Quite simply, this is Ulster’s biggest match since they were crowned European champions back at Lansdowne Road in 1999. Brian McLaughlin’s current crop are Milton Keynes-bound on the back of six straight Magners League wins.
HEINEKEN CUP QUARTER-FINAL: Sunday, April 10
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS v ULSTER, stadium:mk, 2pm (live Sky Sports 2/HD2/highlights RTE 2)
Team News: Ulster head coach Brian McLaughlin had named his starting line-up and replacements for Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton Saints at stadium:mk.
Captained by Rory Best, there is just one change to the Ulster team that beat the Scarlets at Ravenhill last time out, with Chris Henry starting at openside flanker ahead of Willie Faloon who has been named amongst the replacements.
The only other alteration is on the bench where prop Bryan Young comes in for Declan Fitzpatrick, who has been sidelined by a wrist injury.
Craig Gilroy, Ulster’s top try scorer in the Magners League with seven tries in nine appearances, could make his Heineken Cup debut if he comes off the bench during the game.
The Dungannon and Ireland Under-20 winger has been registered for the competition’s knockout stages as an additional player.
Previewing the quarter-final clash with Northampton, flanker Henry said: “Everyone is going to have to bring their ‘A’ game to this one. They’ve threats throughout their team and definitely their back row is a very important factor for them.
“I think the breakdown is going to be pretty huge and as a unit we’ve talked about it and we really need to be on our game. They are a very confrontational side and very direct and we need to make sure we front up.
“Of course we would have preferred a home quarter-final, but we’re not afraid to go anywhere at the moment. We’ve gone away from home and got wins so that gives us confidence.
“Also, knowing that we’ve beaten Bath two years in-a-row, both at home and away, is massive for us.
“I think, as well, you’ve got guys now brought into the squad with huge experience and that’s definitely made a big difference.
“There’s a great balance of guys. You’ve got Rory and Johann (Muller) saying the wise words to keep us all level-headed and then you’ve got that extra energy and enthusiasm from a guy who is just getting his first few caps.”
Meanwhile, the Northampton Saints team to face Ulster in Milton Keynes has been named.
The Saints are heading to stadium:mk for the clash against fellow former champions Ulster, and not only is it the first home Heineken Cup quarter-final in a decade for the men in black, green and gold, but the sell-out crowd means that it is guaranteed to be the biggest attendance in the club’s history and in the history of stadium:mk.
Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder said that it will be a massive occasion for the club’s supporters, and that his team will be treating Ulster with plenty of respect come Sunday afternoon.
“We found out last year how important a loud and boisterous home crowd can be when you get to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals,” he said.
“This season we have given ourselves the opportunity to have that type of support behind us, and we’re looking forward to hearing the Saints supporters giving their all in the stands on Sunday.
“It gives the team a massive boost when they run out, and everything will help because we’re coming up against a really tough Ulster outfit.
“They are second in the Magners League and come over with six successive wins under their belt. In Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys they have a pair of good half-backs, and they have international quality throughout their team.
“We got some good results against Wasps and Sale, but the Heineken Cup is a massive step up and we will have to be on our best form to get a positive result on Sunday.”
Flanker Phil Dowson will start in the Northampton back row, alongside Tom Wood and ex-Ulster forward Roger Wilson.
Dowson, who scored a late try in last weekend’s Aviva Premiership win over Sale Sharks, is the only change in personnel from that game. He comes in for the benched Calum Clark.
The Saints’ starting line-up also includes Ireland ‘A’ centre James Downey, who has played previously for Leinster, Connacht and Munster.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: Ben Foden; Chris Ashton, Jon Clarke, James Downey, Paul Diggin; Stephen Myler, Lee Dickson; Soane Tonga’uiha, Dylan Hartley (capt), Brian Mujati, Courtney Lawes, Christian Day, Phil Dowson, Tom Wood, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Brett Sharman, Alex Waller, Tom Mercey, Mark Sorenson, Calum Clark, Stuart Commins, Shane Geraghty, Bruce Reihana.
ULSTER: Adam D’Arcy; Andrew Trimble, Nevin Spence, Paddy Wallace, Simon Danielli; Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rory Best (capt), BJ Botha, Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Paddy McAllister, Bryan Young, Tim Barker, Willie Faloon, Paul Marshall, Ian Whitten, Craig Gilroy.
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant Referees: Jerome Garces, Cedric Marchat (both France)
Television Match Official: Hugh Watkins (Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Northampton Saints to win: 1/5; Draw: 25/1; Ulster to win: 7/2
Pre-Match Quotes: Brian McLaughlin (Ulster) – “Our players know that on Sunday they have to be better than them (Northampton). We have to go to Milton Keynes and be at our best if we are to win and progress to the semi-finals.
“Looking at the English Premiership, some would say it is divided in two with the top teams being very strong. Northampton are one of those teams, they are right up there.
“So we know we have to be better than them if we are to win on Sunday. It is clear and simple and the players know what is expected off them.
“As I said last week after the Scarlets match, it was full steam ahead into the Heineken Cup. We have not changed anything about how we approach this game.
“However, in the Magners League we have been treating each game like a cup final, as a knockout game, because we cannot afford to lose if we want to achieve the top-four finish.
“That is the same situation on Sunday. It is a knockout game, a cup final. We set our target out at the start of the season and we did not hide from the fact that we wanted to get out of the pool stages.
“For this management and this group, it has been 12 years since it happened and it is an exciting time for this group. We want everyone involved to enjoy it.
“And yes, we will go with the winning mentality we have had all this season that it is a game we want to win.
“We have to be at our best, almost perfect, it we are going to progress to the semis. It is a great challenge for us, but if we are on our game then we know we can come out on top.”
Tom Wood (Northampton Saints) – “There is a danger before the game that you can concentrate on a lot of technical stuff, you figure out ways to beat them in terms of plays and moves and intricacies, and you go out there and none of it comes off, because they are in your faces that bit quicker.
“We have got to make sure that doesn’t happen to us, that we set our intensity and aggression levels and we go out and dictate to them a little bit more.
“That is when we are at our best when we get Dylan (Hartley), (Soane) Tonga’uiha and (Brian) Mujati on the front foot and round the corner.
“We have to make sure we can impose our game, we have to make sure we don’t let them play the way we (England) did against Ireland a little bit.
“We gave them loose balls to dive on or hack through, we didn’t find touch with kicks, we found ourselves offside and they took quick penalties and quick lineouts. We can’t allow Ulster to dictate that kind of game on us.
“When we are on top of our game and we are flying out of the blocks, there is a lot of physical edge, with people flying into rucks and that gets us on the front foot then it just accentuates from there.
“Tonga’uiha only needs a couple of yards of front foot ball and then he is on the rampage as is James Downey, and then you have got the backs who if they get that space are electric.
“If you don’t have that real physical edge early on, it allows the opposition to grow into the game and it kills us.
“I think that is what we were missing during the muddy period in the winter, because guys were a little bit tired. It is very hard to maintain that sort of intensity.
“You only have to have a few who drop off in intensity levels and your whole game falls apart, you have got to win those 50-50s and take that extra yard and it has a butterfly effect.”
Current Form – Northampton Saints – (Aviva Premiership): Lost 18-16 at home to Gloucester; Lost 30-9 away to Exeter Chiefs; Won 23-13 away to Leeds Carnegie; Won 39-3 at home to London Wasps; Won 53-24 at home to Sale Sharks
Ulster – (Magners League): Won 32-13 at home to the Cardiff Blues; Won 23-10 at home to Aironi Rugby; Won 25-23 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 22-19 away to Glasgow Warriors; Won 20-18 at home to the Scarlets
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Heineken Cup: Northampton Saints – Points: Steve Myler 68; Tries: Paul Diggin 6; Ulster – Points: Ian Humphreys 64; Tries: Andrew Trimble 3
Previous European Meetings: 2
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
Heineken Cup Records:
Northampton Saints –
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
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