EUROPEAN CUP: Ulster at their best for Saracens test

Ulster Rugby train at the Kingspan Stadium ahead of their Champions Cup clash against Saracens
Ulster Rugby train at the Kingspan Stadium ahead of their Champions Cup clash against Saracens

In terms of timing, Ulster could not have got it more perfect than being able to put out what is arguably their strongest available side for their most important game this season.

The Irish Province face English Premiership kingpins, Saracens, at a sold-out Kingspan Stadium on Friday night (7.45pm) in what is a crucial European Champions Cup pool one match even if it only round two in the competition.

Saracens currently top the group after an impressive home win over Toulouse last weekend, while Ulster are looking to open their campaign after the postponement of last Saturday’s game against Oyonnax due to the Paris terror attacks.

Callum Black, Wiehahn Herbst, Louis Ludik and Stuart McCloskey all return to the starting line-up as expected.

However, the big surprise was to see Irish international Iain Henderson in the starting line-up, packing down at blindside flanker just a month after he suffered a hand injury in the Rugby World Cup.

He is just the player Ulster need to help combat the power of the Saracens forwards - and it will also be his 50th cap for the Irish Province.

Ulster forwards coach, Allen Clarke, said the English side’s pack had been impressive in the 32-7 win over Toulouse last weekend.

“That was a very impressive result for them. But it reflects the quality that Satacens have.

“Twenty-odd internationals in their squad and they have a tremendous record over the past few years in Europe with regular quarter-final and semi-final appearances and they were also beaten in the final.”

Having not played last weekend, Ulster players found themselves with an unexpected down week particularly in a period of at least 16 straight games.

“Look we were well primed to play last weekend,” said Clarke. “We have moved on and the guys are fresh but also extremely motivated ahead of this weekend.

“We have prepared really well. We know what is coming and we have a lot of respect for Saracens.

“But we are concentrating on ourselves and we are working our way through the week.

“We have been focusing on those things we can bring to the game to counter their strengths and hopefully show what we are about as a team as well,” added Clarke.

Although it is only the second round of six in the Champions Cup, this fixture between two of the competitions heavyweights is being billed as a much win for Ulster.

Clarke said: “I do not think it is a case of win or bust, but certainly if we do not win it, then you really put yourself under pressure to go and win away from home.

“You have three games at home and you have got to be making the most of those.”

The sides last met in a controversial quarter-final in Belfast, which Saracens narrowly won after Jared Payne was red carded after five minutes.

While some have talked about a revenge mission, Ulster number eight Nick Williams said: There is no element of revenge. It’s a new competition, a new team with new personnel.”

FRIDAY NIGHT’S TEAM SELECTION

Ulster: Louis Ludik; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Rory Best (capt), Wiehahn Herbst; Dan Tuohy, Franco van der Merwe; Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.

Replacements: Kyle McCall, Rob Herring, Ricky Lutton, Robbie Diack, Roger Wilson, Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys, Peter Nelson.

Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Duncan Taylor, Brad Barritt, Chris Wyles; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, Petrus Du Plessis; George Kruis, Maro Itoje; Michael Rhodes, Jacques Burger, Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: Jamie George, Rhy Gill, Juan Figallo, Alistair Hargreaves, Jackson Wary, Neil De Kock, Charlie Hodgson, Marcelo Bosch.