sport

Mallinder ready for tough test

Northampton coach Jim Mallinder has billed Friday night's Heineken Cup clash against in-form Ulster as "a massive challenge" for his players.

Ulster will arrive at Franklin's Gardens as the only remaining unbeaten team in European rugby's leading three domestic leagues this season - the Premiership, the RaboDirect PRO12 and the French Top 14.

They have won all 10 of their league games, while they also enjoy a three-point advantage over Saints in Heineken Cup Pool Four, which ramps up the pressure on Northampton on Friday and for next week's return fixture.

"Ulster have a strong winning habit this season and are coming to Franklin's Gardens in the best possible form," Mallinder said.

"Their squad is full of talented players who time and again this season have shown a never-say-die attitude and the ability to get the scores when they needed them.

"It is going to be a massive challenge for us, we know that. But training has been very positive this week and we are coming into the game on the back of three successive wins ourselves.

"However, all of the players know that they will have to take a step up from those performances and play for the full 80 minutes if we are to get the result we want."

England flanker Tom Wood returns from autumn Test duty to pack down at openside for Saints, while full-back Ben Foden also features after making a successful return from injury against Premiership opponents Sale last Friday.

Ulster, last season's Heineken Cup runners-up, will arrive in the midlands with a powerful line-up that features the likes of Tommy Bowe, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best and former Northampton number eight Roger Wilson.

"They (Northampton) have a strong pack and they build their game around that," Ulster coach Mark Anscombe said.

"Their set-piece is very strong and we've got to be excited about meeting that. We've got to conquer them up front if we are going to compete because you've got to have front-foot ball.

"The tight-five have to step up and show their qualities, but I am confident in them. They have all played international rugby."