Man, its such a relief when the HEC rolls back round – the all-encompassing juggernaut that is the national team sucks all rational debate from its surroundings like light into a black hole, then disappears over the horizon with fists flying and noise levels rising like a bunch of 2-year olds in a sweet shop. The Heineken Cup just seems nicer, more orderly, and more suitable to sitting down with a beer and having a sensible conversation about rugby. The loud loutish fools who clamber aboard the patriotism wagon are nowhere to be seen, and you are left with an educated and intelligent fanbase.
This even extends to the pundits – in December, Quinny went on Newstalk and dismissed Munster’s chances of beating Saracens in Thomond Park, extending his gimlet eye down the teamsheet and just not seeing enough evidence of the class to win. In March, the same person was nodding in a sanguine fashion as Frankie blamed the Cigarette-Smoking Man for making Deccie drop Rog.
We have ourselves dismissed Munster’s chances this week, so let’s move on to the other province in the Big Gig – Ulster. On paper, the Ulster quarter-final looks the only one that might be close – Clermont are nigh-on unbeatable in the Marcel Michelin, and Montpellier don’t bring the same energy on the road as they do at home, Munster’s last two away games featured implosions against Treviso and Glasgae, and, for all Leicester’s blood, thunder and Tom Croft, they just don’t have the pack or halves to compete with mighty (nouveau riche) Toulon.
That Ulster aren’t at home and favourites is down to their own blundering – a week after tearing the all-talk-and-no-trousers Saints pack a new one, they meekly laid down at home to them. Losing at home is simply unacceptable to the best teams in Europe, and it shows Ulster have a while to go. Toughing out a win in Castres was a good riposte, but this is a whole new level altogether. Their pool was rather weak – the Northampton Saints are no-one’s idea of a barometer of manliness, Castres lay down like the Euro-bunnies they are, and Glasgow showed nothing of their Pro12 form in the HEC.
So it’s a trip to Twickers, just like last year. That went well, didn’t it? Errrr… The hope (and expectation) is that Ulster will have learned from their big day out in May, and the experience of playing there will set them in good stead. But will they be able to win?
The good news for Ulster is that Saracens are utterly woeful at getting to the ball to their talented outside backs – properly-serviced, Tompkins, Strettle, Ashton and Goode should be killing teams out wide, but they rarely see the ball. Ulster have a good record of late against teams that rely heavily on their packs – Munster, Saints and Castres for example. If Ulster can neuter the Saracens forwards, they have the weaponry to do damage – they are adept at getting Gilroy and Trimble in off their wings, and Jared Payne is a rare talent.
Neutralizing the Sarries forwards is about slowing the ball down – with a ponderous scrum-half, a kicking ten, and a boshing twelve, they very much rely on their more dynamic pack members (Vunipola, Brits, Hargreaves, Joubert) spotting gaps then offloading to trailing runners or recycling ball quickly and forcing last-ditch penalties from defenders. That’s a game Ulster will be confident they can deal with.
The three key men are Johann Muller, Darren Cave, and, particularly, Chris Henry. Ulster’s pack in the absence of Muller is notably worse – decision-making suffers and the lineout is much more fallible – expect a tight and controlled aggressive performance with the Springbok in tow. Cave marshalls the defensive line excellently, and Ulster will need to be extremely disciplined in defence as well as scrambling effectively when Saracens do get going. And as for Henry, a contender for player of the pool stages, his job is to slow down ball, frustrate the Saracens forwards, and manufacture a dogfight. If Henry bosses the breakdown, Ulster have half the job done.
Another factor is Ulster’s favour is the presence of Romaine Poite in the middle. Poite is a contrary character, but he rewards a dominant tight five at scrum-time, and doesn’t tend to do what home fans want him to. Saracens backups of Rhys Gill and John Smit are better scrummagers than the starters, and if Saracens are forced to bring them in earlier than they want to, Ulster will be setting the tempo of the match.
Ultimately, Ulster are going to look to keep their line intact and restrict Farrell to 4 to 5 kickable penalties. After that, they will ask themselves: do they have the firepower to score one try and kick a few goals of their own? They would be confident that they do – Saracens are an extremely tough nut, particularly at home, but Ulster won’t fear them, and would probably fancy themselves in a mano-a-mano knock-out tie, especially at a venue where they will have 20,000 supporters and a need to exorcise some ghosts.
Something we haven’t heard too much of yet is the Mark McCall factor – McCall won the Celtic League in his time at Ravers, but left under a cloud as the squad fractured asunder – the unity and singularity of purpose of Ulster’s squad this season has been admirable, and one can imagine Humph waking up in a cold sweat at the prospect of having to congratulate McCall on knocking his Project out of the HEC. You can bet your bottom dollar this is a match Ulster will bring their A game to.
But will it be enough? Saracens have impressed us every time we have seen them in the Premiership this year, but were rather underwhelming for the HEC group stages. Ulster, on the other hand, have wobbled badly after a dream start to the season. Ulster look a more balanced and complete team, but are still re-integrating after injury (and are missing Fez and Tommy Bowe). Saracens have all the form and the glamour and home advantage. It’s very tight, but Saracens might just squeeze through. We hope we are wrong of course, and Saracens reliance on Owen Farrell’s boot can work both ways. If Ulster cross the line twice, or defend something like they did in Thomond last year, or at the RDS on saturday night they will win. Otherwise, and most improbably, Munster will be the last Irish team in the HEC come the Sunday Mass kickoff in Lahn.