Brian McLaughlin seldom deviates from his ‘one game at a time’ mindset.
This week, though, it has been plain that while the Ulster coach has one eye on tonight’s Magners League joust with Italian side Benetton Treviso, his other is fixed on next Saturday afternoon’s vital Heineken Cup clash with French giants, Biarritz Olympique.
As races, both the Italians and the French are noted for their style and sophistication.
But based on what he saw of them in late November, McLaughlin is not expecting too much grace or flair from tonight’s guests.
Ulster’s 19-9 Stadio Monigo win was achieved in conditions more akin to Tempo than Treviso and the hosts’ rugby on that occasion certainly was not of the flash and dash variety.
“We went over there and it was a terrible night — very wet. They are a difficult side to play against; they’re a hot handful, very physical and very aggressive.
“So I suppose you could say it’s a good game for us to have ahead of Biarritz who are exceptionally physical as well,” says McLaughlin, momentarily breaking from his one-match-at-a-time mantra to cast a telling forward glance towards next weekend’s all-important Heineken Cup date with the French giants who were runners-up in last season’s European club showpiece.
At that, normal service is resumed and the Ulster coach reverts to type with an assessment of the task in hand and his team’s position following successive defeats at the hands of Leinster and Munster.
“If we’re serious about our aspirations of a top four finish in the Magners League, then we should, at home, be good enough — at our best — to beat Treviso,” he says, diplomatically tip-toeing his way to that conclusion in a manner designed to avoid any hint of arrogance or the suggestion that Ulster are being dismissive of guests they have beaten in all of their five previous encounters.
“Everything is still very much in our hands and we know that if we get things right against Treviso this weekend and ticking and clicking for Biarritz the following week then we still have everything to play for.
“So that’s the key thing, that’s what we have to do. It’s in our own hands,” he says, again allowing himself to look beyond the immediate task.
The strength of tonight’s team and replacements confirms the importance Ulster are attaching to the occasion. There is a real dry-run-for-Biarritz look to the line-up.
Post-Munster, Simon Danielli is the only back who retains the same position for while Paddy Wallace stays, he switches from fly-half to inside centre.
After that it's a case of all change behind the pack with Adam D'Arcy replacing Jamie Smith at full-back, Andrew Trimble returning to the right wing following last week’s rest, Nevin Spence recalled to the centre where he partners Wallace and Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys restored at nine and 10 respectively.
Stephen Ferris starts on the bench having recovered from the leg injury he suffered in training ahead of the Heineken Cup win at Bath on December 18, Ulster’s last win.