Enjoy his review of Ulster’s Pool 1 opponents in the European Rugby Champions Cup.
Having succumbed to disappointing defeats to Bordeaux, home and away, as well as away losses to Clermont Auvergne and Exeter Chiefs, Ulster’s European Rugby campaign ended before it began last season.
Up against Wasps, La Rochelle and Harlequins, in Pool 1, how will we fare this year?
What will arguably be the toughest match of the campaign for Ulster will see Charles Piutau return, for the first time, to his old stamping ground of the Ricoh Arena.
Wasps, pipped to the Aviva Premiership by Exeter last season, are one of the favourites to lift the European title this time round having reached the Quarter Finals and Semi Finals in the two previous seasons.
Danny Cipriani provides the main focal point to Wasps’ structured attack, while Willie Le Roux, Elliot Daly and Christian Wade are a combination which have the ability to punish any loose kicking, Wade showing his pace as a major player in Wasps’ recent Premiership Rugby Sevens success.
Last season Wasps topped most of the Aviva Premiership’s attacking stats: scoring the most points (734) and had a tries per game average of 3.8, compared to Ulster’s recorded average of 3.1. Wasps also recorded a staggering 293 line breaks, which leaves Harlequins, also in the same pool, in their wake with their 203.
Up front, probably still reeling from his Lions’ omission, Joe Launchbury is physical and regularly tops his team’s tackle statistics, notable in England’s Six Nations’ victory in Cardiff with 23 tackles. Nathan Hughes and Ashley Johnson’s physicality will test Ulster’s pack and are always a danger, combining with their talented back line to capitalise on line-breaks.
Undoubtedly the surprise package of the Top14 last year, La Rochelle topped the final table of the regular season before being pipped to the final by Toulon, courtesy of an 80th minute drop kick from Anthony Belleau. Significant victories away to Toulon and Toulouse aided an 11 game unbeaten streak which fired the side from western France into the limelight.
La Rochelle’s newfound position within the upper echelons of French rugby has been confirmed with natable player recruitment. Abrasive back Rene Ranger has signed on a two year contract from the Blues, while Tawera Kerr-Barlow joins to aid the progression of exciting prospect, Arthur Retiere. Ulster will need to protect the fringes of the breakdown as both Kerr-Barlow and Retiere will capitalise on lacklustre pillar/guard defence.
In the pack, openside flanker Kevin Gourdon made his French debut in 2016, but lay down his marker in the 2017 Six Nations. Not a player to hog the spotlight, Gourdon is a tremendously underrated flanker and is a nuisance if he’s not dealt with effectively. Equipped with a dogged spirit and a never say die attitude, Gourdon is a perfect fit to the French side – expect an attritional affair when Ulster lineup against the French semi finalists.
Harlequins claimed the last of the Aviva Premiership’s automatic qualifying spots. Despite a poor start to the season, losing to Sale Sharks and Exeter Chiefs and a 2 point win over relegation favourites Bristol, ‘Quins ended Saracens’ unbeaten run, for the second time in two seasons, with a 17-10 victory at Twickenham Stoop.
Only two of their 11 league losses, against Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs, came at the Stoop and both came after Christmas. Edinburgh (European Rugby Challenge Cup) and Sale Sharks (Anglo-Welsh Cup) were the only other sides to inflict defeats at home last season.
Quins feature two props fresh from the Lions Tour in Kyle Sinckler and Joe Marler.
Sinckler was largely used as an impact sub and his energy and athleticism throughout the tour was exceptional, particularly in the second test where he helped keep the series alive by winning a dubious penalty in the 76th minute. Ulster will need to be wary of his monstrous ball carrying ability but should also note that discipline can be the 24-year-old’s achilles’ heel.
In the backline, Tim Visser was the star man in their victory over Sarries and will be familiar to Ulster supporters from his stint at Edinburgh. Wingers Visser and Marland Yarde offer differing threats while fullback Mike Brown is an elusive runner from broken play. Their new signing from Munster, Francis Saili, was a thorn in Ulster’s side in April.
Quins backline has enough talent to give Ulster a few problems, particularly if the likes of Brown and Yarde are given space to run.
It’s not the toughest group in European Rugby, Ulster could have been drawn with Clermont Auvergne and Saracens, but it would certainly be a notable achievement if our boys proceed to the knockout stages from this evenly matched pool.