Pressure on Ulster to deliver against a side whose priorities lie elsewhere

AT THE TWICKENHAM Stoop tonight [KO 8pm, BT Sport], both teams have laid out where their priorities lie this season.

In one corner, you have Ulster, who have welcomed back all of their internationals for this Challenge Cup last-16 tie and, bar the injured Iain Henderson and Marcell Coetzee, are as full-strength as Dan McFarland could have asked them to be.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

In the other, you have Harlequins, who are very much not.

The Premiership side didn’t say outright that this was their intention for this game but, reading between the lines of what line-out coach Jerry Flannery said in mid-week, you knew that a team shorn of all their star names was coming, and so it proved.

A cursory look at their absentee list tells you all you need to know: Joe Marler, Wilco Louw, Stephan Lewies, Will Evans, Alex Dombrandt, Danny Care, Marcus Smith, Andre Esterhuizen and Mike Brown all sit out.

In their wake, the coaching staff have six academy players in their matchday squad, two of whom – Matas Jurevicius and former Munster academy scrum-half Jack Stafford – are in line for their senior debuts off the bench.

There is still quality on the Quins side as they bring Scottish internationals James Lang and Scott Steele into their backline, while Ulster fans will have nightmares of rampaging hooker Elia Elia’s dominant display at Kingspan Stadium last season, but, in reality, this is a home side missing a lot of talent.

Such is the lay of the land in the second-tier Challenge Cup that Ulster have found themselves in. Their punishment for defeats to Toulouse and Gloucester before Christmas is coming up against a team who are fourth in the Premiership and clearly prioritising their push for the domestic play-offs.

In stark contrast to their opponents, Ulster have no other commitments to steal their attention currently and, as expected, they are all-in for this game.

And the truth is this should be a straightforward win for the province. Their squad is more talented and more experienced than their hosts’, and the opportunity to take a big step towards claiming their first silverware since 2006 is a tantalising one they won’t want to pass up.

But, while their task has been made easier by the absence of Quins’ front-line stars, if anything it has also ramped up the pressure on Dan McFarland’s side. While before they were simply seen as one of the top sides remaining in the Challenge Cup, now the expectation is that they will reach the quarter-finals – where Northampton Saints lie in wait – fairly easily.

Jordi Murphy captains Ulster tonight. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

So, while they perhaps aren’t getting the challenge that they wanted in the Champions Cup, Ulster get a chance to prove tonight that when the pressure is on them as favourites in a knockout match, they can deliver. And that’s the kind of thing that this squad has yet to learn.

While the Challenge Cup is not one of the two pieces of silverware Ulster would ideally be adding to the trophy cabinet at Kingspan Stadium, claiming the title would be a valuable learning experience for a squad that is heading in the right direction but needs to prove, both to their doubters and to themselves, how to close out tournaments.

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“We want to win trophies,” asserted scrum-half John Cooney earlier this week, echoing the sentiments of head coach McFarland, Rob Herring and Nick Timoney before him.

The Challenge Cup affords them the best chance to do so for a long time. And tonight presents them with a great chance to take a big step in the right direction, both literally and mentally.


(15-9) Tyrone Green; Luke Northmore, James Lang, Paul Lasike, Nathan Earle; Brett Herron, Scott Steele; (1-8) Santiago Garcia Botta, Elia Elia, Will Collier; Hugh Tizard, George Hammond; Archie White, Jack Kenningham, Tom Lawday (captain).

Replacements: George Head, Jordan Els, Simon Kerrod, Tevita Cavubati, Matas Jurevicius, Jack Stafford, Ben Tapuai, Ross Chisholm.


(15-9) Michael Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney; (1-8) Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore; Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell; Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy (captain), Nick Timoney.

Replacements: John Andrew, Andy Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Cormac Izuchukwu, Matty Rea, Alby Mathewson, Ian Madigan, Ethan McIlroy.

Referee: Romain Poite (France)