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Must-win match with Wasps a chance for Ulster to prove a point to themselves

‘Make sure this is not another false dawn,’ was the forceful message from Rory Best after a sensational win over La Rochelle.

Nick Timoney celebrates his try with teammates Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO


That was the very simple message coming from both Les Kiss and Rory Best after last weekend’s superb win over La Rochelle.

The key drivers of this team know that seasoned Ulster supporters have seen these remarkable highs before. And too often they’ve been followed with a cliff-like drop in form and intensity.

“Get back down to earth again and make sure this is not another false dawn,” said a typically frank and self-critical Best after bringing Ulster into pole position in pool 1 with 17 points that permits them to aim high for the knock-out stage.

In some respects, it would be a harsh appraisal to call it a false dawn were Ulster to fail to win away from home against an extremely talented and well-coached club who sit third in the Premiership. But last week, Ulster looked like a team who were livid with themselves for backing into a corner throughout this season. So they began fighting their way out.

Come full-time in Coventry, the quarter-final schedule will become crystal clear. And for Ulster to be a a part of that, the equation is simple: beat Wasps at the Ricoh Arena (kick-off 15.15, BT Sport).

After Saracens’ thumping 60 – 24 win over Northampton yesterday, the likelihood of a losing bonus point being enough has almost evaporated – though Ulster will know by kick-off whether Leicester Tigers or Castres have done them unexpected favours against Racing 92 or Munster.

Win with a bonus point and they’ll have matched Clermont’s 22-point haul in the pool stage and will have home advantage come the quarters.

Rory Best with Jacob Stockdale Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Any floating numbers or day dreaming over ranking positions will have to be dispelled nice and early if they are to accomplish this particular mission. Wasps’ best hope of qualification is by topping the pool. So if Ulster can hit the right emotional pitch and prevent the hosts from gaining an early foot-hold, then news from La Rochelle – who need a bonus point win over Harlequins – could be invaluable in warding Wasps off the scent.

Of course, this Ulster team is well capable of winning a straight battle too. Kiss has made minimal changes for this evening’s encounter with Iain Henderson’s selection in the back-row allowing Kieran Treadwell swap in for Matt Rea being the only non-enforced change.

Craig Gilroy also started last weekend, but has since had surgery and a plate inserted on his cheekbone after a clash forced him off in the first half against La Rochelle.

Rodney Ah You celebrates after the game Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Darren Cave replaced Gilroy and played a central role in creating two of Ulster’s three tries, so his presence in midfield today was well-flagged.

Wasps certainly haven’t thrown the towel at Pool 1. Dai Young has kept 21 of the same 23 who lined out against their long-standing rivals Harlequins.

Irish exiles – though soon to return - Brendan Macken and Marty Moore are both among the replacements, Macken dropping out of the starting XV to allow Juan de Jongh make his return from injury and join an electric set of outside backs that will hope to stretch their visitors to breaking point.

Danny Cipriani and Willie Le Roux Danny Cipriani and Willie le Roux attack during the win over La Rochelle. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

With rain forecast for Coventry this afternoon though, the soft track will make it a contest for the hard men up front and Ulster might be well served to look to the sky and get their physically-imposing backs chasing and hounding the mercurial Danny Cipriani and Christian Wade.

Though Wasps will miss Elliot Daly, Nathan Hughes and the suspended James Haskell, the world class Joe Launchbury will be a considerable hurdle for Rory Best’s pack to get over, though the selection of effectively a third lock in Treadwell will help solidify the northern province.


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Whatever the result, the full-time whistle will come with emotional moments for Christian Lealiifano. The Australian out-half completes his short, but sweet, stint in Ulster today having massively endeared himself to coaches, players and fans with his relentless attitude and play-making ability that has helped Ulster keep the ship afloat during a turbulent time on and off the field.

Christian Lealiifano celebrates with his son Jeremiah Lealiifano with his son Jeremiah after the October win over Wasps at the Kingspan Stadium. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The tone of Kiss’ words about his compatriot last week spoke volumes. Normally the director of rugby’s media addresses are delivered with unwavering calm, yet there was the mildest hint of a quiver amid masses of feeling in his voice when speaking about Lealiifano and the example he has set over the course of his five months.

“As an organisation you’ve got to be better than your weakest people,” Kiss said,  “you’ve got to grow each day and, when you’re in distress and under pressure: who stands up and who doesn’t fold?

“Who doesn’t start pointing fingers everywhere?

“He’s epitomised the true nature of what we’re trying to build here.”

Ulster will need that attitude in spades again today if they are to back it up, make it count and give themselves a big day to look forward to when March turns to April.


15. Willie Le Roux
14. Christian Wade
13. Juan De Jongh
12. Kyle Eastmond
11. Marcus Watson
10. Danny Cipriani
9. Dan Robson

1.  Simon McIntyre
2.  Tom Cruse
3.  Jake Cooper-Woolley
4. Joe Launchbury (Capt.)
5.  James Gaskell
6.  Jack Willis
7.  Guy Thompson
8.  Nizaam Carr


16. Ashley Johnson
17. Ben Harris
18. Marty Moore
19. Kearnan Myall
20. Thomas Young
21. Joe Simpson
22. Rob Miller
23. Brendan Macken


15. Charles Piutau
14. Louis Ludik
13. Darren Cave
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Christian Lealiifano
9. John Cooney

1. Callum Black
2. Rory Best (Capt)
3. Rodney Ah You
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Iain Henderson
7. Sean Reidy
8. Nick Timoney


16. Rob Herring
17. Kyle McCall
18. Wiehahn Herbst
19. Matty Rea
20. Chris Henry
21. Dave Shanahan
22. Johnny McPhillips
23. Rob Lyttle

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Sean Farrell

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