A titanic struggle in store at Aviva as brave McLaughlin puts faith in youth

Forget the heroics of 1999, in picking Paddy Jackson to start at fly-half in today’s Heineken Cup semi-final with Edinburgh (5.45pm), Brian McLaughlin could not have sent out a clearer message to the Ulster faithful that his team is ready to write a new chapter in their history.

For all the Titanic commemorations and all the talk of Ulster Rugby’s last great day in the sun, with their European final victory over Colomiers at Lansdowne Road 13 years ago, people in the northern province may have wondered if they were locked in some sort of bittersweet timewarp these past weeks. The sight of the 20-year-old Jackson running out at the Aviva Stadium this evening (5.45pm) will bring them right back into 2012.

McLaughlin sprung the one selection surprise of the semi-finals when he chose Ulster’s biggest day since that 1999 season to hand the Ireland Under-20 captain his first Heineken Cup start at the expense of regular number 10 Ian Humphreys.

The other change from the side which stunned Munster at Thomond Park in the quarter-final were enforced, Declan Fitzpatrick replacing the suspended John Afoa at tighthead prop and Connacht-bound back-rower Willie Fallon standing in for Chris Henry, who failed to shake off an ankle sprain. Other injury doubts Paddy Wallace, Pedrie Wannenburg and Paul Marshall were passed fit with Marshall named as replacement scrum-half.

The Ulster head coach is confident Jackson, who started against Leinster at Ravenhill eight days ago, will justify his selection and that his young fly-half has enough experience around him in scrum-half Ruan Pienaar and centres Darren Cave and Paddy Wallace to ensure he gets as comfortable a ride as can be hoped for against a dangerous Edinburgh back row.

McLaughlin gave his reasoning: “Paddy has come in over the last few weeks and done exceptionally well. His performances warranted selection. It’s a very tough call on Ian who has been exceptional over the past few seasons, but we felt Paddy deserved a shot.”

It is a big call in a match of such importance and against a side coached by Ireland’s Michael Bradley whose mantra this week has been “nothing to fear, nothing to lose”.

Edinburgh have already beaten London Irish and Racing Metro away from home in their pool phase. And with a back row of David Denton, Ross Rennie and Netani Talei, former Cork Con scrum-half Bradley has a trio of ball-carrying rampagers.

That victory at Murrayfield over Toulouse will also carry them into the Aviva on a massive wave of confidence, such that they will forget their RaboDirect Pro12 form which sees them sit second from bottom and those two heavy league defeats this season to Ulster.

For the Scots this will be all about replicating that performance against the French giants. Yet this is a game for Ulster to lose.

They have that renowned Springbok spine in Johann Muller, Wannenburg, Pienaar and wily full-back Stefan Terblanche, a world-class hooker in Rory Best, a game-changing marauder of a back-row themselves in Stephen Ferris and some fierce firepower in their backline with the likes of Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble. Not to mention 40,000-plus Ulstermen inside the Aviva.

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