Rugby Union: Humphreys fitness boost for Ulster

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DAVID HUMPHREYS, the Irish international stand-off whose inspirational form has propelled Ulster into the semi-finals of the European Cup, has declared himself fit to face the tournament favourites, Stade Francais, at Ravenhill on Saturday.

Humphreys has not played since damaging his left shoulder in the closing seconds of the quarter-final victory over Toulouse last month, but he had cause for celebration yesterday. "Not only am I ready to play, but it's blowing a gale here in Belfast," he said. "As long as it stays this way, we'll fancy our chances against the French."

At one stage over the weekend, Ulster were contemplating the loss of their entire first-choice midfield; their two international centres, Jonathan Bell and Mark McCall, were considered even more doubtful than Humphreys.

Yesterday, however, Harry Williams and his coaching colleagues were hopeful that all three would make the big occasion. "I've done very little on the physical front since Toulouse," Humphreys said, "but a game of this magnitude tends to accelerate your recovery.

It should be a wonderful occasion - we've already sold 17,000 tickets for the game and the crowd will be up around 20,000 on the day - and I think we have a genuine chance of victory. We've played some controlled, consistent rugby this season and when you mix that in with a bit of old- fashioned Irishness, you have something quite potent. I'm just relieved I'm going to be a part of it."

Another outside-half, albeit a greybeard by comparison, is also relishing the prospect of an appearance on the big stage. Paul Turner, the Saracens backs coach who turns 40 next month, may play a role in tomorrow night's big London derby with Wasps, thanks to Alain Penaud's continuing "dead leg" problems. Turner was given a run-out from the bench during Sunday's victory over Bedford and, even though Saracens yesterday signed Matt Jones, the London Irish stand-off, on a month's loan, there was every possibility that the former Wales playmaker would remain in the squad.

"I still feel able to do the job, if asked," Turner said yesterday. "I've kept myself fit and spending so much recent time watching from the sidelines has given me a clearer idea of where we're going wrong in certain situations. Anyway, age is no barrier in my book."

Judging by the way Bath have performed these last six weeks or so, they could use one or two old heads in key positions. Understandably, Andy Robinson, their coach, has recalled Martin Haag, one of his longest-serving forwards, to the second row for tonight's important match at Sale. Haag, who has been awarded a testimonial season by the club he joined a decade ago, replaces Nigel Redman, who was badly concussed during the early stages of last Saturday's humiliating defeat at Gloucester.

Sale are in an almost equally desperate state, although few sides enjoy a comfortable ride against the Heywood Road threequarters. The Cheshire club's latest wing discovery, Steve Hanley, has scored six tries in four Premiership outings and hastened the departure of his England club-mate, Tom Beim, into the bargain. According to the Sale sages, he is an international in waiting. "He can go all the way and he can do it early," said Jim Mallinder, the Sale captain, yesterday. "He is confident, arrogant even, but he's also very level-headed. England have big backs and they have quick backs, but Steve has it all."

Gloucester, who travel to London Scottish in their eternal quest for a decent away victory, bring Dave Sims, the club captain, out of purdah for a rare appearance at lock. Richard Hill, the Cherry and Whites coach, has repeatedly preferred Mark Cornwell to the more experienced England hand of late, but Cornwell twanged a groin muscle during his outstanding performance at Kingsholm on Saturday and sits out the trip to The Stoop.

n Newcastle Falcons' championship-winning captain, Dean Ryan, yesterday left Kingston Park for the Allied Dunbar Premiership Two leaders, Bristol. He said: "It will obviously be a huge wrench to leave Newcastle after so much success over the last three years."