Flight tickets – check… Match tickets – check… Ulster shirt, hat and scarf – check… Lucky underpants – check… Extreme, sphincter-twitching build-up of nerves – check…
The teams are out there, Edinburgh as expected. Ulster minus Henry, plus Jackson. I have no worries about the latter – whatever you may say about McLaughlin, he has been admirably open to judiciously bringing young players into the team at the right moment, and Jackson’s dress rehearsal against Leinster went very well.
Henry’s absence on the other hand is a bit of a concern – I must admit to having been something of a sceptic, firstly about Henry at 6 or 8 (I thought he didn’t carry well enough), secondly about his conversion to seven, but this season I have been delighted to have been proven completely wrong. He has been exceptional, adding greater physicality, and increasing presence and smarts in the contact area, to his already outstanding workrate. He is replaced by Faloon, whose form has not been good – here’s hoping he bucks the trend, because our back row will need to be on their game against Edinburgh’s tasty-looking unit.
Edinburgh will be hoping to catch us on the hop, disrupt the set piece (particularly the scrum) and silence the crowd – they will be delighted if the scoreline is with a score one way or the other at half-time, with the crowd’s roars at kick-off having dwindled to subdued nerviness by half-time. If the match pans out like that, then it’s in the lap of the gods…
What Ulster will be hoping for is to apply pressure and get the scoreboard ticking – I think that if we put clear water between ourselves and them in the first half, for all that Edinburgh won’t throw the towel in, I think inevitability will take hold.
This then is what we need to do – can we? Despite the loss of Afoa and Henry, on paper we still look considerably better player for player, and have the players to pose threats all over the park. However we are sometimes guilty of failing to take the initiative in matches, or getting over-eager in the red zone. We will certainly have to adopt a thoroughly different approach to that which got us by Munster – we played substantially the whole match with no quality possession, and defended our way to victory.
I remain confident – we are capable of going out there and laying down a big marker ahead of the final. The bookies are offering Ulster at – 6. My call – Ulster by 13-15… SUFTUM!