Seeded first from pool qualification Ulster Rugby have home advantage against Saracens in a repeat of last seasons’ quarter-final at Twickenham, where the runaway English Premiership leaders comprehensively dispatched Ulster’s best efforts to #maketwickenhamhome.
It promises to be a massive occasion with a passionate home support ready to rock the foundations of Ravenhill’s impressive new development – building contractors have been working to the last moment to have the stadium ready and close to its eventual 18,000 capacity.
The social media games have continued from last season. Saracens called on their fans’ to #makeravenhillhome and Ulster released an orchestral version of their familiar song Stand up for the Ulstermen, part of a wider campaign asking fans’ to #showURsupport.
The respective social media campaigns have perhaps stirred a supporter rivalry, a little friendly competition adding to the spice of the occasion, but come Saturday evening all that will be set aside as two highly fancied sides go to war.
The Belfast-based side came through qualification for the knockout stage unbeaten in their pool, winning all six of their fixtures including two eye catching performances away against Montpellier and Leicester.
Their form has been patchy in recent weeks, an indifferent performance on the not so hallowed turf at Murrayfield and a first defeat of the calendar year on Cardiff’s artificial surface suggest that Ulster’s focus had prematurely shifted to Saracens.
Ruan Pienaar’s availability is crucial, and Mark Anscombe can choose from a fully fit squad with the return of Stephen Ferris after 16 months in the dark an obvious bonus for the Ulstermen.
Ferris will be unleashed from a bench loaded with forwards along with Iain Henderson and Robbie Diack, selections which acknowledge the physicality of the Saracens pack and leave Ulster with some serious impact in the second half.
From an Ulster perspective it was impossible not to watch with great pride as formerly unsung heroes from the province played significant roles in Ireland’s exploits during the Championship winning Six Nations. However, of those involved, it was the performances of Andrew Trimble which stood out as the most pleasing by some margin.
Trimble himself had feared further international recognition would pass him by as recently as last year, despite 50 plus caps he’d never managed to transfer his consistently impressive performances in the white and red of Ulster to the international arena until Joe Schmidt put his faith in the devout Christian this spring.
A Wembley defeat at the hands of fellow qualifiers Toulouse, and a second pool loss at Stade Ernest Wallon against the same opponents, complicated matters for Saracens but they qualified as eighth seeds scoring more points than any other team in the process.
If Ulster’s form has suffered in the lead up to this clash then Saracens have gone from strength to strength in recent weeks with Wasps defeated at Adams Park and Harlequins put to the sword in front of a world record rugby attendance at Wembley.
Sitting pretty at the top of the Aviva Premiership for now, Mark McCall is all too aware that Saracens must raise their level at the business end of the season if they’re to avoid another near miss.
If one player epitomises the unfashionable, uncompromising, frankly almost unstoppable game which Saracens churn out week on week it is back-row Jacques Burger. There is nothing flashy about the 30 year old former Bulls player with the distinctive curls and battle hardened features.
Since joining Saracens in 2009 the Namibian quickly established a reputation as one of the toughest no-nonsense forwards amongst their ranks. Burger has insisted he’ll thrive off a hostile reception from the roaring Ravenhill terraces, and has been outspoken in the week about putting the squeeze on Ulster and Pienaar in particular.
Saracens welcome back Billy Vunipola to form a formidable back row unit with Joubert and Burger.
Head-to-head: Ruan Pienaar vs Owen Farrell
Whilst these two aren’t strictly in direct opposition, there’s no doubt that Pienaar and Farrell pull the strings for their respective sides. From an attacking perspective Farrell has improved significantly since these two met at the same stage last April but in what is expected to be a ferocious contest up front, both halfbacks will be looking to capitalise territorially during moments of ascendency.
Expect Owen Farrell to test Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe by playing the corners while Pienaar has one of the most accurate box kicks in his armoury, a tactic which plays to the strengths of Ulster’s in-form wingers and a likely headache for Saracens’ Chris Ashton, Alex Goode and David Strettle.
Not only will their tactical orchestrating be crucial, but in a game which is unlikely to be settled by any more than one score, a penalty or drop goal, their respective form with the boot is probably going to decide the outcome in the end. Ultimately, if Pienaar performs well Ulster usually win, especially at Ravenhill.
As an Ulsterman it’s difficult to keep an objective perspective when they’re involved in such a huge occasion, I’ll make no apologies for that. However, there’s no doubting the threat posed by a ruthlessly efficient Saracens pack and the risk that they’ll spoil the party is all too real.
Ulster’s defensive maul was a major area of concern after a disastrous first half at the Cardiff Arms last week, so Saracens could find some success in that area although Ulster will undoubtedly have addressed those frailties during the week.
Providing Ulster don’t freeze on massive day for the province, and there’s no reason to believe this will be the case, I’d back them to edge this one. Ulster by 4.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images