Match Preview: Ulster Rugby vs. Saracens

championscupWhether last week’s game should or shouldn’t have been played is irrelevant. What happened in Paris last Friday was a tragedy and our thoughts and prayers go out to all affected by the events.

And so, in a show of solidarity, we move on to round two which now becomes our round one, and what is undoubtedly the game we have all been looking forward to ever since the pool draw was made. Prepare yourselves ladies and gentlemen and get your singing voices in tune – Saracens are coming back to the Kingspan Stadium.

Our history is well documented of course from our Heineken Cup quarter-final meeting in 2013 where we failed to #maketwickenhamhome and were easily defeated 27-16, while our game at the same stage a year later, this time in Belfast, will probably go down in rugby history as the day laws for challenging players in the air changed forever as Jared Payne took Alex Goode out in the air.

Goode plays tomorrow. Luckily for him Payne does not.

Saracens come to us in a good run of form – they are yet to lose this season and have been taking teams apart with relative ease too, as last week’s demolition of Toulouse showed. They have put a premium on blooding young talent such as Jamie George, Petrus du Plessis and Maro Itoje and combining them with the experienced heads of the likes of Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell and the Vunipola brothers to form a formidable team.

Mark McCall is running a tight ship in the middle of nowhere (literally. The nearest underground station is half an hour’s walk away) and they will take some beating. However, it is worth remembering that we have started the season with three bonus point wins at home and we haven’t been beaten there for a year now when Toulon came calling. So this will be a tough test for them.

At the same time, Saracens will provide our stiffest opposition to arrive at the Kingspan for a while though. But we have been improving considerably, especially with the arrival of Les Kiss in Belfast, and a win here would put us in a very good position in our pool before the back-to-backs against Toulouse, and if we could deny them anything from the game then even better…

This is, by a long way, the biggest game of our season so far. Win and we give ourselves early optimism in the pool, while a loss makes qualifying all that more difficult and would probably shift our focus back onto the PRO12 at this very early stage. However, we have a grudge to settle with Saracens and backed by a ferocious crowd, how can we lose?

Oh yeah, we have a French ref…

The teams

Five changes for us to the side that was named to face Oyonnax last week, two of which are in the backs as Louis Ludik comes back into the side at full-back while Stuart McCloskey is reinstated at inside centre after injury with Peter Nelson dropping to the bench and Luke Marshall missing out completely. The latter’s namesake Paul is reinstated this week to the bench in place of Shanahan . Up front the props switch with Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst replacing Kyle McCall and Ricky Lutton, and it is a welcome return for Iain Henderson at blindside flanker having recovered from injury.

Two alterations for Saracens as hooker Schalk Brits returns to the starting line-up as part of his rotation with Jamie George, while in the back row Jacques Burger is available after his suspension and he starts at openside flanker at the expense of Will Fraser.

 

Ulster Rugby vs. Saracens

Friday 20th November, 19:45

Kingspan Stadium

European Rugby Champions’ Cup – Pool Game 2

 

Live on BT Sport Europe

 

ULSTER RUGBY

15. Louis Ludik, 14. Andrew Trimble, 13. Darren Cave, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Craig Gilroy, 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Ruan Pienaar; 1. Callum Black, 2. Rory Best (capt.), 3. Wiehahn Herbst, 4. Dan Tuohy, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Iain Henderson, 7. Chris Henry, 8. Nick Williams.

Replacements: 16. Kyle McCall, 17. Rob Herring, 18. Ricky Lutton, 19. Robbie Diack, 20. Roger Wilson, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Ian Humphreys, 23. Peter Nelson.

SARACENS

15. Alex Goode, 14. Chris Ashton, 13. Duncan Taylor, 12. Brad Barritt (capt.), 11. Chris Wyles, 10. Owen Farrell, 9. Richard Wigglesworth; 1. Mako Vunipola, 2. Schalk Brits, 3. Petrus du Plessis, 4. George Kruis, 5. Maro Itoje, 6. Michael Rhodes, 7. Jacques Burger, 8. Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: 16. Jamie George, 17. Rhys Gill, 18. Juan Figallo, 19. Alistair Hargreaves, 20. Jackson Wray, 21. Neil de Kock, 22. Charlie Hodgson, 23. Marcelo Bosch.

 

Referee: Romain Poite (FFR)

Assistant Referees: Cyril Lafon, Pierre Brousset (both FFR)

TMO: Eric Gauzins (FFR)