Ireland scrum-half John Cooney is hoping that Ulster’s attention to detail can put Racing 92 to the sword in Saturday’s Heineken Cup shootout at the Kingspan Stadium.
Simon Zebo’s Racing are big favourites to top Pool 4, sitting on 13 points with Ulster looking a distant second on nine.
However, despite lacklustre back-to-back inter-provincial defeats, Ulster are quite able to pull off something special. They are spurred on by the 20th anniversary of their one and only European Cup success. Then they defeated top French sides Toulouse (twice), Stade Francais and then Colomiers on their way to the title.
Now there are no secrets among continental opposition. With video analysis so integral, teams can pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of individuals and units and probably find out what rival players have for breakfast.
“It trickles down from the Irish team where you seem to know every single player you are playing, every single week,” said Cooney. “You nearly know what step people have, left or right, what side they kick off, and we have those snippets all in our computers at the moment.
“So it is important when you get to the game in that, say, Finn Russell (Racing’s fly-half), might dummy late, stuff like that. Even the people in the ‘second’ team understand. I noticed that Johnny Stewart was looking at computers at what Antonie Claassen does for them. So really, it’s a huge squad effort and it’s good to see people that might not be picked week-in, week-out, looking at all their players.”
What about his own opposite numbers?
“It’s very difficult as they have two very good nines. But both are quite similar in the way they kick. Teddy Iribaren is a real good ball-player and likes to attack blind while Maxime Machenaud is a lot more physical. Either or, I’m going to have to understand the way they play.”
Cooney stresses that Ulster must get their engine revving quickly in order to upset the rhythm of the French side.
“It’s important for us to start well, though. Something that we haven’t done that well this season because we know, that in the last 20-40 minutes all season, we have been really powerful and strong.
“There was a picture that Dan (McFarland) showed us where Ulster had started against Toulouse with a huge tempo for the first 15 minutes and they were bent over tired and Ulster players were standing up strong. That was quite similar against La Rochelle last season, when we started with that tempo and they struggled a little on in the game. It all adds up.
“It’s important that we do that this week, and move the point of contact and play those wide edges.”
While the Kingspan stadium doesn’t necessarily hold the same fear as the old Ravenhill citadel of yesteryear, Cooney still reckons that Ulster’s gameplan on top of their pace around the park will be a key to unlocking a French side with a big lumbering pack.
“I think it is where we have a bit of an opportunity. It’s easier said than done, though. A lot of teams think that if they move these big French teams around that they’re going to dominate them and win.
“A lot of the time that doesn’t work, because either they don’t stick to the gameplan, or they get a bit of a shock at how good some of these French teams are.
“I think it’s important we look after the ball, and we don’t let them get those turnover opportunities. That’s where you grind them down, whereas if some teams assume that once they move the ball to the width they’re going to beat these French teams. I think it’s important we implement our gameplan and stick to it.”