The Magners League table would suggest that Irish Rugby is in a pretty good place at the moment. Our provinces occupy the top three places and, in fourth, the Ospreys are benefitting greatly from the influence of Tommy Bowe.
This weekend sees the top six in the league go head to head. There is no doubt that the big game will be in Limerick where the favourites for the Amlin Challenge and the Heineken Cup come face to face. However, Ulster are sneaking close behind, with title ambitions of their own.
The Northern Province currently sit third, just five points ahead of tonight’s opponents, Llanelli Scarlets. Despite the proximity of their first knockout Heineken Cup game for 12 years, Brian McLoughlin has named a strong side to keep their momentum rolling.
Ian Humphries is recalled for some much needed game time after recovering from a hamstring injury that side-lined him for the past month. Another long term absentee, Munster-bound, BJ Botha also returns to action after being laid up since the win over Biarritz in January. Joining him in the front row will be returning six nations players; Tom Court and Rory Best. The latter will resume captaincy duties ahead of Johann Muller.
In the backline, Ruan Pienaar reverts to his favoured position of scrum half, meaning Paul Marshall is relegated to the bench. Alongside him will be Craig Gilroy who is displaced by Andrew Trimble and fullback Adam D’Arcy who make up the back three along with Simon Danielli.
The one piece of bad news for Ulster today came from Stephen Ferris. The powerful blindside is likely to miss another chunk of the season to treat a cartilage problem in his right knee. Referring to tomorrow’s surgery, Ferris tweeted that he was: “Very disappointed to be out of action for another while” and added, “Hopefully (I’ll) get it sorted once and for all tomorrow. Injury sucks”
In the 25-year-olds absence Robbie Diack, one of five South Africans in the side, will continue to deputise at number six. A win for his side would not only consolidate their playoff spot, but also see them capitalise while the remaining members of the top five duke it out amongst themselves.
The Ravenhill men have won their last five games on the trot, including a last gasp 18 -16 win over Friday’s opponents. The Scarlets travel over still slightly aggrieved by that reversal and, judging by returning Wales hooker Matthew Rees, they are hopeful that the Irish side have at least one eye on next week’s trip to Milton Keynes:
“It’s a tough ask to get a result out there, but we have our best team out and we know Ulster will also be looking forward to a Heineken Cup quarter final.”
Rees is one of 21 Scarlets players who re-signed with the club for the coming season. So, with a fresh contract in hand he is keen for the South Wales side to make one final push for the playoffs:
“It’s in our hands – we have to win our four remaining games starting with Friday night. We’re in a dogfight now with the other teams around us. We got the victory against Treviso last weekend, it wasn’t the best of games but we have put things right this week.”
Although all eyes will be on Limerick on Saturday, the nine counties can steal a march by continuing their winning streak. It will be tough task with the like of Rees, Stephen Jones, Jonathan Davies and Morgan Stoddart in their ranks.
But Ulster will know their incentive: A sixth win in a row would not only keep momentum going, but would also equal their winning streak from 2006, when they last lifted the Celtic League title.
Ulster: A D’Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, BJ Botha, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, R Diack, W Faloon, P Wannenburg. Replacements : A Kyriacou, P McAllister, D Fitzpatrick, T Barker, C Henry, P Marshall, I Whitten, C Gilroy.
Scarlets: R Priestland, G Maule, R King, J Davies, M Stoddart, S Jones, T Knoyle, I Thomas, M Rees (capt), R Thomas, L Reed, R McCusker, J Turnbull, J Edwards, B Morgan. Replacements : E Phillips, R Jones, P Edwards, A Shingler, D Lyons, M Roberts, D Evans, S Williams.