Simon Danielli up for another cup

THE LAST TWO rounds of Heineken Cup action get under way on Friday with Glasgow playing their bogey team the Dragons at Firhill while Ulster will be planning a warm welcome for Edinburgh at Ravenhill, weather permitting.

Ulster's game against the Ospreys on Friday was cancelled so at least Edinburgh will have the advantage of some recent rugby under their belts before resuming their European campaign.

Although they might consider themselves a little unlucky in coming second to Biarritz at home, with just one win from four starts Glasgow are out of the equation and playing now for pride. In contrast Rob Moffat's men are still hopeful that their European adventure lasts beyond January and they have been helped by a change to the rules.

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The best two runners-up in the pools will qualify for the quarter-finals of the main competition, as usual, but for the first time the next three best runners-up will drop down and compete in the quarter-finals of the second tier Amlin Challenge Cup. Boasting the league leaders in both England (Saracens) and France (Castres), alongside two-time Heineken winners Wasps, it promises to offer a stern test for any teams that parachute in.

"Definitely!" agrees Ulster and Scotland flyer Simon Danielli. "Both cups are good competitions and the main thing is to be fighting for some silverware come the end of the season. Obviously I'd prefer that to be in the Heineken Cup but Stade Francais have the group sewn up by the looks of things so I'll take the Amlin Cup rather than nothing."

Danielli played in the first two matches in Scotland's autumn series before making way for Thom Evans against Argentina. Despite Sean Lamont's excellent showing against the Pumas some still believe that Andy Robinson discarded Scotland's best back.

Whatever else he offers – and rushing out of the defensive line against Fiji was not his finest hour – Danielli is a proven try-scorer at the highest level and tries are as rare as hens' teeth where Scotland are concerned. The big winger scored a brace against Munster last week and he is currently running at one touchdown for every two starts he gets for Ulster.

As things stand it is Danielli's club that occupies the last spot that will qualify for the Amlin tournament so next Friday's match looks crucial. Edinburgh have the advantage of already having won at Ravenhill this season, a narrow 16-13 league victory, but since then the capital side have hit a rocky patch. Ahead of yesterday's match against Cardiff, Moffat's men had lost three of their last four and the team renowned for its running rugby could not bag a try in any of them. All of which is irrelevant to Danielli.

"When we prepare for Edinburgh coming to Ravenhill all we think about is the fact that we haven't done very well against them in recent years," bewailed the winger. "We are played two, lost two so far this season. We shared the spoils last season with one win each and we lost both matches the season before that.

"It's going to be a massive game for us next Friday and especially since I know so many of the players which just adds that little extra something. Edinburgh always play a good style of rugby but they also present a really stern challenge, a tough game."

Now 30, Danielli was just 23 when he first played for Scotland under Ian McGeechan. Three coaches later he is still pressing his claims on the national jersey despite having won just 22 caps in all that time. He openly admits that a combination of good competition, inopportune injuries and his occasional poor form has restricted his appearances to far fewer than some had predicted.

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The winger actually professes not to know how many caps he has won, "early twenties" is his best guess, and he has to be told the precise number. In others this might be affectation, in Danielli it is probably just a reflection of the sort of character who has always viewed the game as a pastime or perhaps a profession but certainly not a matter of life and death. That's not to suggest that the adopted Ulsterman fails to work at improving his game, simply to say that he keeps rugby in its proper perspective. With a degree in philosophy and theology from Oxford and marriage last October to his Northern Irish fiance Olivia, Danielli boasts a bit of background outwith the game which is sadly missing from some of the players of the modern battery-hen production line that allows so little in the way of life experiences.

"I do think that there is a bracket of players who maybe don't make it in professional rugby but they don't find out that they have failed until they are in their mid-twenties," says the winger. "They have come through the system but for whatever reason maybe they didn't get the chance to impress, and suddenly they find themselves unwanted with nothing to fall back on."

Danielli's contract with Ulster is up in this summer but it seems unimaginable that the province will relinquish one of their proven match-winners.

Danielli and his teammates have already done Edinburgh one big favour by proving that pool leaders Stade Francais are not unbeatable. Now Ulster have to do Edinburgh one more favour, losing to them next Friday evening.