Ross FORD today pinpointed the key threats to Edinburgh’s hopes of overcoming Ulster and reaching next month’s Heineken Cup Final.
The teams meet at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium in Saturday’s semi-final and Ford, drawing on his vast international experience, is in no doubt which players Edinburgh will have to keep particularly quiet in order to progress to a clash with either Leinster or Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham on Saturday May 19.
Ford, the only professional at the club to have played a Test for the Lions, said: “Ulster have threats across the board from Steve Ferris to Pedrie Wannenburg to Ruan Pienaar.”
Ferris is someone Ford, pictured, will know especially well having toured South Africa with him on Lions duty until the Ulsterman, one of 14 from Ireland on that trip, had his sojourn ended by a torn knee ligament.
Long recovered, Ferris has gained 35 caps playing for Ireland in each of the three back-row positions.
As for Wannenburg and Pienaar they have gained, respectively, 20 and 51 caps for South Africa. While back-rower Wannenburg has a particularly outstanding Super 15 record, which includes 99 consecutive games for the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls before joining Ulster in 2010, it is Pienaar who is better known.
As well as being able to play scrum half or stand off in the manner of Edinburgh’s own Greig Laidlaw, he was a member of the Springboks’ World Cup-winning squad in 2007.
Furthermore, Pienaar has been a key figure in both Ulster’s league wins over Edinburgh this season, clocking up 16 points from four penalties and two conversions at Murrayfield in January from scrum half, while in the return fixture a few weeks later he claimed four conversions.
“They are all big players,” said Ford as he also outlined his respect for fellow hooker and international captain, Rory Best, along the way. Rory is a great player,” added Ford, aware that Ireland’s most capped hooker with 59 appearances was a try scorer against Scotland in the latest Six Nations clash between the countries at the Aviva Stadium.
To his credit, Ford does not shy away from Scotland’s disappointing fortunes and admits: “With Scotland there have been a run of bad results.”
He adds: “If I can learn from that and pass on positive experiences that will contribute to finishing the season as a better player than when I started out.
“It has been a kind of up and down season, and the Heineken Cup has been an enjoyable – and hard – part.”
Whatever has gone before at international level, Ford wants to keep this season alive for as long as possible.
“It’s great to be in a competition this late in the season and we have got to make the opportunity count,” he said. “In every European tie we have probably gone in as underdogs and ended up proving critics wrong.
“Saturday is another step down that road and, while I’ve heard the phrase nobody remembers who finishes runner-up, to get this far is a fantastic achievement. We don’t want to stop here though. We want to get to the final – and win it. We have been proving critics wrong and Saturday can be another step on that road.
“It’ll be a big challenge but we have the skill and ability in our squad to open Ulster up.
“We have just got to make sure we are up there mentally and physically in order to have a go at them.
“There will be no point looking back and wondering ‘what if we’d done something differently’. We just have to go for it.
“Along the way we have squeezed out a few wins and that is a good habit to have. It stems from momentum generated by starting well.
“The tournament itself started with a win at London Irish and that gave us a kick-start.
“Everything that has gone before, particularly the wins over Racing Metro, provides us with confidence and we have to use that to start well on Saturday because if we do that we have the ability to get results against good teams like Ulster.”
Should Edinburgh achieve that win, then Ford will make his 50th Heineken Cup appearance on the biggest stage of all – the final.