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Preview: Ulster v Saracens

04th April 2014 12:04

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Ruan Pienaar Ulster 2013

Returns: Ruan Pienaar

Of the four mouth-watering Heineken Cup quarter-finals, this undoubtedly possesses the greatest needle as Ulster tackle Saracens at Ravenhill.

What a weekend we have in store.

Due to the outfits involved and also the venues set to host these last-eight showdowns, this could well be the most anticipated European weekend in years. Thomond Park, Stade Marcel-Michelin, Stade Félix Mayol and the aforementioned Ravenhill will all be jumping come kick-off.

The latter has been redeveloped in time - as Ulster promised - and will be ready to create a special night in its history as they sold out their own tickets before fans snapped up 1,500 that Saracens sent back to them in under a minute, with that announcement adding further spice.

Furthermore, former Ulster coach and now Saracens boss Mark McCall told the Belfast Telegraph on Thursday that despite them selling out Wembley for a recent Premiership fixture, "there is a difference between a corporate audience and a hungry rugby public".

We couldn't agree more.

Because of home field advantage, Ulster enter the clash as slight favourites, but write off Saracens and their outstanding defence at your peril. If the English side do what they did against Bath at the Recreation Ground then Ulster have a job posting substantial points.

Saracens are arguably the form team of the two after winning at Wasps while Ulster fell to Cardiff Blues in their respective leagues. But while the Blues were impressive, Ulster were clearly not at the races from a psychological point, which won't be an issue at 18:30 BST.

Much of course has been made of Ruan Pienaar's availability due to a recent injury while Billy Vunipola's fitness has also been in the news as this meeting approaches. No disrespect to Vunipola but Pienaar's absence would have had the greater impact.

They both start the clash, with Pienaar alongside Paddy Jackson while Vunipola wears number six in a back-row line-up that includes Jacques Burger and Ernst Joubert.

Up against Pienaar will be Richard Wigglesworth, who gets the nod over Neil de Kock at scrum-half while Saracens go for Duncan Taylor at outside centre ahead of Chris Wyles.

Finding weak spots in these world class XVs will be the task for both coaches but even if they do manage to do so, benches including the likes of Stephen Ferris, Robbie Diack, Kelly Brown and Charlie Hodgson just add to the depth in quality. What a game for a neutral.

Ones to watch:

For Ulster: He oozes class and seems to make time for himself on the ball, Ruan Pienaar returns from injury in time to start this game. His performance at Leicester in the Pools was superb...Ulster need a repeat. Also keep an eye on Stephen Ferris coming off the bench.

For Saracens: The form of Owen Farrell has been superb for England and Saracens this season and he will need to continue that in the white hot atmosphere at Ravenhill. If he can pull the strings, get on top of opposition fly-half Paddy Jackson and have an intense yet cool demeanour about the Ravenhill pitch then Saracens have more than a chance of winning.

Head-to-head: We go to the heart of the action for this one as Rory Best takes on Schalk Brits. Two players with different styles but both equally effective for their respective teams, Best will use his intelligence around the field in combination with his threat at the ruck while Brits is all-action. We also cannot wait for Roger Wilson going up against Billy Vunipola.

Prediction: The Ravenhill factor will be huge. Saracens to push hard but Ulster by 3!

The teams:

Ulster: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Roger Wilson, 5 Dan Tuohy, 4 Johann Muller (c), 3 John Afoa, 2 Rory Best, 1 Tom Court.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Ricky Lutton, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Stephen Ferris, 21 Robbie Diack, 22 Paul Marshall, 23 Craig Gilroy.

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Billy Vunipola, 5 Mouritz Botha, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 James Johnston, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 Eoin Sheriff, 20 Kelly Brown, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Chris Wyles.

Date: Saturday, April 5
Kick-off: 18:30 BST
Venue: Ravenhill
Referee: Jérôme Garcès (France)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Cédric Marchat (France)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (France)

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