The countdown to the biggest four weeks in Ulster’s season to date is under way.
Bath home and away in the Heineken Cup on the two Saturdays before Christmas followed by Magners League dates with Leinster and Munster at Ravenhill and Thomond Park on December 27 and New Year’s Day respectively. That’s quite a schedule.
Ulster’s pre-season goals were inclusion in the knock-out stage of either of the two European competitions — ideally the Heineken Cup — and a place in the Magners League top four play-offs. With Bath at Ravenhill this weekend, coach Brian McLaughlin’s assessment of the challenge is frank.
“If we want to be involved in Europe — and we do — we have to win it, that’s it,” he said.
“Bath, with their pedigree and history, are a big, big English club. They’re a famous English club, too, and they’ve won every honour going so from that point of view it’s a very attractive fixture.
“They still have some top class players. You only have to look at the England team that played during the autumn and you see they included Bath players in (Shontayne) Hape and (Matt) Banahan. So Bath have some tremendous quality players.”
That said, Ulster beat them home and away in last season’s competition, with their 28-10 victory at the famous Roman city’s Recreation Ground breaking new ground in that it was their first ever over Premiership opponents in a competitive fixture on English soil.
Thus McLaughlin’s record is a perfect played two, won two. But with typical tongue-in-cheek impishness he downplays his achievement.
“There’s enough pressure in this job so don’t go putting the scud on me,” he said before pointing out that Bath beat Ulster 26-14 at Ravenhill four months ago.
However, in any fair-minded person’s eyes the defeat of a shadow side in the first pre-season friendly of the 2010/11 campaign does not count.
Most would view such a fixture as a bit of a leg-stretching exercise after the lay-off rather than fully fledged combat. When it has mattered, McLaughlin and his team have outwitted and outplayed their opposite numbers.
That is a record he and they are keen to keep going.
“We want to make sure that in the next few games we guarantee ourselves that we finish the year high up in the Magners and with something still to play for in Europe,” he added. “Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, it’s fair to say that to come through Christmas on target in both competitions are our two major objectives.”
The weather-enforced postponement of Friday night’s Magners League game with Newport Gwent Dragons was untimely.
“That was a chance to fine-tune and to bring in guys who haven’t been with us for a while,” he said, a reference to Ulster’s back-in-the-fold international players.
Friday’s starting line-up was to have featured loosehead Tom Court and wing Andrew Trimble, both back after Irish duties in the Guinness Series, with Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris on the bench alongside South Africa’s scrum-half Ruan Piennar. Clearly Saturday afternoon’s team and replacements will not be the same as would have been the case against the Dragons.
“Obviously we now have to look again at the selection for what is a different match against different opponents,” was McLaughlin’s explanation.
“I’ve said all along that with Ulster it’s a whole squad thing. If we’re going to do well in Europe and in the Magners then it’s going to be about all our players, including the Academy.”