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Preview: Saracens v Ulster

05th April 2013 11:53

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John Afoa Ulster 2012

High class: John Afoa

Arguably the pick of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals comes from Twickenham on Saturday as Premiership leaders Sarries face 2011/12's finalists Ulster.

Saracens enter this home game as favourites due in part to their form in the Aviva Premiership, a campaign that sees them four points clear at the top. The second reason being that Ulster have not been the same side that started the season with PRO12 victories that lasted until December 29 - and three Heineken Cup wins to boot. Their most recent win at Leinster has somewhat papered over what has been a difficult period for the side.

But few would write off a turnaround in form in this one-off game that will be as close to a Test match as you can get. Ulster have the ability to turn it on when it matters and with John Afoa back in the side along with Luke Marshall and Jared Payne (getting back to 100 percent), they will be a threat.

Ulster desperately need to recapture the form that saw them win at Franklin's Gardens in Round Two, and with a line-up that's finally back to some sort of normality following the two international windows and injuries, Saracens will have their work cut out on Saturday. A pack of Tom Court, Rory Best, Afoa, Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Nick Williams says it all really in what should be a forward battle of titanic proportions.

For the English outfit who have developed an impressive steel and team spirit this season - furthered with a three day break at the Swiss resort of Verbier where they could enjoy some paragliding, tobogganing and skiing - they will want a repeat of the performance that beat Racing Metro in Paris over the Christmas period and the one at Welford Road in February.

Boss Mark McCall has stressed that everyone needs to be on form as he welcomes back Brad Barritt, David Strettle, Schalk Brits, Matt Stevens, Alistair Hargreaves and Kelly Brown.

"Ulster have players all over the pitch who are capable of winning games on both the domestic and international stage," he said.

"In the past two seasons, they have been one of the form teams in Europe and of course, reached the final of this competition last season - so we are fully aware of the size of the challenge ahead of us.

"We go into the game in a good place in both the Premiership and a home quarter-final in Europe. Twickenham is a familiar venue as many of our squad have played here frequently in recent years and of course, several of the team were also in action here just a few weeks ago in the Six Nations - so everyone is really looking forward to the occasion."

Ulster are boosted by the return of Afoa from New Zealand while Ireland finisher Tommy Bowe is back in the 23 following injury, which is a welcome boost for such a massive game.

"Tommy has trained very well. He is chomping at the bit to get out there - he has missed a lot of rugby and he wants to play," Mark Anscombe said ahead of the Twickenham clash.

"We want to accommodate him because he is a world-class player. It is a credit to our Head of Strength and Conditioning, Jonny Davis, and to Gareth Robinson, Alan McCaldin and the rest of our medical staff that he is ready."

Looking ahead to the game, Anscombe added: "We're playing in the quarter-final of a great competition, at one of the best grounds in rugby, against the side leading the Aviva Premiership and there's going to be a big crowd. It doesn't get any better than that."

Ones to watch:

For Saracens: He has been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons of late as pundits and fans continue to question his defence. Ulster will no doubt look to put Chris Ashton under pressure so it will be interesting to see how he copes. Ashton was good last week against Wasps so the jury remains out on him. It could well be his last chance to get to Australia.

For Ulster: Mark Anscombe needs his big game players to come to the party on Saturday and few come bigger than Nick Williams. The number eight will be targeted by Sarries but if he can get over the advantage line while Ruan Pienaar kicks his goals, Ulster can prevail.

Head-to-head: It would not be surprising to see John Afoa slot back in seamlessly to the side with a high-class shift, such is this complete prop. His form over the past two seasons at Ravenhill has been superb and his battle with Mako Vunipola is definitely one to keep an eye on. Another battle worth watching comes at ten and twelve where England meets Ireland in an all-international scrap between Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall. In truth there are many other positions that whet the appetite at HQ.

Prediction: This is a tough call but on form you would have to go for Saracens by 1-5!

The teams:

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Joel Tomkins, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steve Borthwick (c) 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 John Smit, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Petrus du Plessis, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Chris Wyles.

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

Date: Saturday, April 6
Kick-off: 18:30 BST
Venue: Twickenham
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Assistant referees: Leighton Hodges (Wales), CÚdric Marchat (France)

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PosTeamPPts
1Saracens418
2Northampton416
3Bath415
4Exeter414
5Wasps411