Crunch clash for Ulster and Bath
December 9, 2010
Springbok half-back Ruan Pienaar is proving his class with Ulster this season © Getty Images
Ulster and Bath meet at Ravenhill on Saturday afternoon for a game that neither side can afford to lose if they are to keep their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages of this season's Heineken Cup alive.
Ulster have not made the quarter-finals since they won the tournament all the way back in 1999 and their hopes of doing so were badly dented by a sobering defeat away to Biarritz, Pool 4's early pacesetters, in round two. Consequently, nothing less than victory will suffice this weekend.
However, the stakes are just as high for Bath, as they have already been beaten by Biarritz, though their defeat came, more damagingly, on home soil. An away win is now of the utmost importance but Steve Meehan's men arrive in Belfast on the back of a shocking run of form in the Aviva Premiership.
Ulster - Player to Watch: South Africa's Ruan Pienaar offers a great deal of playmaking nous from scrum-half and, with his heavy artillery back up front, he will hope to dominate proceedings.
Ulster - Team News: Pienaar is joined in the backline by centres Paddy Wallace and Nevin Spence, who deputises for the injured Darren Cave. In the pack, former Springbok lock Johann Muller returns from a neck injury to captain the side, while Stephen Ferris is recalled in the back-row after international duty with Ireland.
Bath - Player to Watch: Matt Banahan has again been entrusted with the No.13 jersey and with the Six Nations fast approaching he will want to prove that he can cut it as a centre at Heineken Cup level.
Bath - Team News: Olly Barkley will make his 200th apperance for Bath but cannot command a place in the starting XV, where Shontayne Hape joins Banahan in midfield. Sam Vesty remains at fly-half, with Jack Cuthbert joined by Matt Carraro and Tom Biggs in the back-three. Scotland international Simon Taylor starts at No.8 in the absence of Luke Watson, with Andy Beattie and Lewis Moody rounding out the back-row.
Key Battle: The Ulster midfield will be outgunned in terms of sheer size but with a second playmaker in Wallace they will be hoping to out-think the brawny Bath backline. If they don't, it could be a long afternoon.
Trivia: Ulster beat Bath home and away in last season's tournament - the only previous fixtures between the sides at Europe's top table.
Stats: A win for Ulster this weekend would be their 10th against English opposition in the Heineken Cup.
"The people who go to Ravenhill love it when they see Ferris bursting through with the ball in his hands or the likes of Trimble or Danielli going past an opponent. As well as being great to play in, it gets spectators going, too. That all adds to the energy - the electricity - and really helps rack things up for the guys on the pitch." - Ulster backs coach Neil Doak plays up their attacking philosophy.
"We've got to get out of the blocks straight away. We are playing the team that we need to beat to compete with Biarritz to go through the group stages. It is like a semi-final in many ways, and we are aiming to play it with that level of intensity." - Barkley looks forward to a difficult game.
Prediction: On their home track, Ulster are a strong proposition and with Bath's recent form problems this one should go the way of the Irish side.
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