Ulster and Leicester lock horns in a glamour pre-season friendly at Ravenhill on Saturday at 2.30pm. New Ulster coach Mark Anscombe will hope to continue his winning start against Bayonne last time out, with Leicester also coming into the match with a victory behind them with a 31–24 success over Jersey.
Ulster will have high expectations for the coming season after last year’s run to the Heineken Cup final, a new head coach and a return to the province of home-grown players such as Tommy Bowe, Roger Wilson and Niall O’Connor. The acquisition of Bowe in particular has been quite a coup for Ulster, with some of the top French sides rumoured to be interested in the Lions international. Ex-Munster and Auckland Blues player Nick Williams will add cover to the back-row after leaving the defunct Italian outfit Aironi, while Irish qualified hooker Rob Herring arrives from Western Province. The 22 year-old South African will compete with Rory Best, Nigel Brady and Niall Allnet for the number two jersey.
The new signings have been off-set by the departure of a number of the more experienced players in the close season. 37 year-old Stefan Terblanche, who arrived initially on a three month deal as injury cover last November before finishing the season at Twickenham in the Heineken Cup final, announced his retirement from the game. Fellow Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg was released while out-half Ian Humphreys has moved to the Leicester Tigers which will add spice to the fixture.
Last week an Ulster team with a blend of youth and experience came from behind to beat a strong Bayonne side in South-West France 20-15. Indeed it was the first time that the front row of Callum Black, Niall Annett and Adam Macklin started together. Out-half Paddy Jackson got the visitors off the mark with a penalty, but Bayonne hit back with two tries before the interval to lead 12-3 at the break. After the resumption substitute scrum-half Michael Heaney crossed for a try, with Niall O’Connor adding the conversion. O’Connor and Cedric Garcia traded penalties before lock Ian McComb raced through for the winning score three minutes from time.
This will be the second of three pre-season fixtures for the Tigers. They had too much firepower for Championship newcomers Jersey in the Channel Islands last weekend, finishing on the right end of a 34-21 scoreline. The side was captained by prop Italian Martin Castrogiovanni, with back-rower Jordan Crane and the talented George Ford back-boning the side, with Crane helping himself to two tries in his first game back from injury in more than a year. They complete their pre-season with a home tie against Nottingham. Leicester get their domestic campaign underway on September 2nd with an away fixture to newly promoted London Welsh, and will hope to go one step further than last season when they lost 30 – 23 in the final to Harlequins in front of 81, 779 spectators, the largest ever crowd for a Premiership final.
The two sides were grouped together in the same Heineken Cup group last year, and with Clermont Auvergne present, it was one of the most competitive groups. Leicester failed to progress after losing to both sides away. The defeat at Ravenhill was the English sides heaviest ever defeat. Tries from Craig Gilroy, Paul Marshall, a brace from Andrew Trimble and 21 points from the boot of Ruan Pienaar saw Ulster win on a scoreline of 41-7, with Geordan Murphy scoring the only try for the visitors. While the starting line-ups will show many changes from that night in Ravenhill, Leicester will hope to banish the memories of one of the low points of their European history with a competitive performance. With home advantage and the new signings gelling quickly, Ulster will be favoured to claim a victory.