Victory at Franklin’s Gardens tonight will open up a handy gap at the top of Pool 4, and virtually wrap up a slot in the knockout stages for last season’s beaten finalists.
Two years ago, Ulster had the game by the scruff of the neck, but failed miserably as the Saints triumphed 23-13 after coming from behind at the break.
Just like in 2010, Ulster will not have Stephen Ferris. He is now going down the well-worn path of rehabilitation, following surgery last Wednesday to repair damaged ankle tendons sustained during the Pro12 clash with Edinburgh last month. He will miss Ireland’s Six Nations campaign and his chances of another Lions tour are extremely slim. Back then, Ulster depended on Ferris to light the touch paper, but a knee injury sidelined him from that quarter-final tie in Milton Keynes. However, now, as their 12 wins from 12 outings show, they are doing quite well without the thunderous play of the abrasive number six.
“We came up a bit short back then,” said Best. “Stevie didn’t play that day and we were heavily reliant on him then. Certainly we were a few key personnel short of being a very good team. When you look back you realise that we probably weren’t a good enough side to have been semi-finalists or finalists that year so that takes a wee bit of the edge off it.”
Ireland’s most-capped hooker with 62 appearances makes his first start since the round two clash with Glasgow in a side that is as strong a one they have fielded all season.
Coach Mark Anscombe has had a few tough calls to make, the big one putting new Ireland sensation Craig Gilroy on the bench with Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe retaining their wing slots.
But another new Ireland cap, Iain Henderson, gets the nod in a back row which sees Chris Henry at openside and former Saints star Roger Wilson at number eight. Ruan Pienaar, Ulster’s key player, returns at scrum-half to dictate things while All Black John Afoa will relish his arm wrestle with Soane Tonga’uiha in the set pieces where the game will be decided.
“A lot has happened since we last met them. But what will not change is the physicality in their pack, so we have to front up,” said Best.
“We know that in these tight games it comes down to big games and big performances. We can’t just rely on winning our home games and hoping that will be enough. You have to be targeting every single game to win it and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: B Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, D Waldouck, J Elliott; R Lamb, M Roberts; S Tonga’uiha, D Hartley (capt), B Mujati, S Manoa, C Lawes, C Clark, T Wood, GJ van Velze.
Replacements: M Haywood, A Waller, P Doran-Jones, M Sorenson, P Dowson, L Dickson, S Myler, T May.
ULSTER: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson.
Replacements: N Brady, C Black, R Lutton, R Diack, N Williams Nanai, P Marshall, L Marshall, C Gilroy.