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Ulster assistant boss rejects claims Harlequins devalued the Challenge Cup

Roddy Grant has been one of the few to defend the English side.

Roddy Grant (file pic).
Roddy Grant (file pic).
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE TOPIC OF team selections in Europe’s second tier reared its ugly head again at the Twickenham Stoop on Sunday night.

In hindsight, the writing was on the wall for Harlequins before their last-16 clash with Ulster even began, the hosts’ coaching staff opting to make 14 changes to the team that played a week prior and resting all their front-line players, prioritising their push for the Gallagher Premiership play-offs instead.

The result was a one-sided thrashing at the hands of the northern province, Ulster running in eight tries compared to Quins’ three and handing out a 57-21 pasting on home soil.

Quins aren’t the first side to select their team like that, with plenty of sides down the years opting to give fringe players a chance to impress in the Challenge Cup. Indeed, they weren’t even the only side to experiment last weekend, with Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers doing similar.

In fact, Ulster will probably have to deal with the same questions when they travel to Saints for their quarter-final on Saturday, as it is unlikely that director of rugby Chris Boyd will bring all his big names back in for the last-eight tie having sat them last week.

Seeing off a full-strength Quins side away from home would have earned Ulster many plaudits; instead, hammering a weakened team was simply expected. And it’s another glaring indictment of a competition that already pales in comparison to its bigger, and much more intimidating, counterpart.

But while many took aim at Harlequins for their decision to give the likes of Joe Marler, Danny Care, Joe Marchant and Mike Brown the week off last week, Ulster assistant coach Roddy Grant has been one of the few to defend their opponents.

“I don’t think so,” responded the former flanker when asked if Quins’ team selection devalued the competition.

“For me, I don’t like commenting on selection or what other teams do. You look at the weekend — a few teams hadn’t played or rested certain guys and there were still some cracking games and some cracking results.

“Any time in a season you can rest or rotate, or whatever you want to call it. It’s still a big competition for us and we’re certainly wanting to do the best we can in it. Any time you coach against an English side you’re still apprehensive about how good they could be.”

Last week, Northampton opted not to play the likes of David Ribbans, Tom Wood, Alex Mitchell, Dan Biggar, Piers Francis or George Furbank, and they may not play this weekend either, meaning the same issue may be discussed all over again come the end of the week.

“It’s still a quarter-final and it’s still a knockout. I think they’ll have another tough team,” insists Grant.

“You look at the Dragons game, that’s still a tough team they put out. They had some injuries, and if they come back in they’re brilliant players and if they don’t and play the exact same team they played against Dragons, it’s a really good team.

“The next round you go onto it’s generally a tougher test, naturally. We’re expecting a tough game, and as forwards’ coach, I am expecting them to put out a very good pack and a very good test for us.”

Meanwhile, Grant also defended fly-half Billy Burns after the Ireland international’s tumultuous Six Nations that saw him slated online for his missed kick to touch against Wales, start against France and then miss the final game against England due to injury.

But, despite all those knockbacks, the 26-year-old came back into Ulster and started against Harlequins, pulling the strings in the No.10 jersey and leading his side to a commanding victory that puts them just three wins away from a first piece of silverware since 2006.

“He’s been class. He’s a good professional and also within that he’s really competitive, as most people are in this environment. That’s probably helped him, coming back in, because he is a competitive bloke who wants to play,” praised Grant.

“From those aspects, it’s been seamless. He’s a really good leader, he talks really well, naturally being a No.10 it is a leadership position and I assume it has been good for him coming back in.

“He’s been straight back into it, running the show really. You can’t really mope about if you’re in a position of leadership, so that’s been good for him. I thought he played really well at the weekend.

“It’s been great how well the guys have done coming back in. Billy has been brilliant and that’s no surprise.”

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And Grant also hopes that they will soon be joined in the international set-up by another provincial team-mate in the form of Michael Lowry, who stole the headlines at The Stoop with his sensational solo try.

The 22-year-old cuts a diminutive figure at just 5’5″, but his evasiveness and speed make him a massive threat as a broken field runner, and he has consistently been one of Ulster’s best performers all season, which has prompted calls for recognition by national coach Andy Farrell.

“How far (could he go)? Who knows. Like anything, the ceiling is probably only as big as the individual and where the person viewing him puts that ceiling to,” said Ulster’s forwards guru.

“In terms of him as a person and what he looks like, he looks like a Kolbe, he looks like a Darcy Graham. He looks like guys who have played international rugby. He’s a brilliant player, he’s still so young and he’s getting better every week, and he’s a great bloke, really professional, really keen to learn and develop.

“It was a great try, he’s worked really hard at his craft. I can’t say enough positive things about him. As with any young player, consistency, in my view, is really what you want and young players probably need to develop with experience, and the more you experience something, the more you have.

“The key thing with exciting players is how often they can do it and how consistent can they be, and with time he’ll just get more and more consistent. He’s played some really good rugby this year.”

– First published 00.05, 7 April

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