Leaders Connacht show how tough fight for Euro spots will be: Doak
With Connacht's stellar season showing no signs of letting up, Ulster head coach Neil Doak is aware that the battle for Pro12 play-off spots and places in next year's Champions Cup is likely to be tighter than ever.
The western province beat Munster in Limerick for the first time in almost 30 years last weekend and sit proudly top of the league table with eight rounds of games played.
In contrast, with the league's top six and an Italian representative set to qualify for next season's Champions Cup, Ulster currently sit seventh ahead of taking on Edinburgh at Kingspan Stadium tomorrow night (7.35pm kick-off).
In seasons gone by, the 2009/10 the most recent example, when Connacht threatened to overhaul Ulster domestically it would have resigned the Belfast side to a year in the Challenge Cup, but, while the rules now in place allow for all four Irish provinces to take their place at Europe's top table provided they secure a top-half finish, Doak cites the progress of Pat Lam's men as an example of the Pro12's increasing difficulty.
"You saw Connacht at the weekend beating Munster away, it's a great result for them and it just shows the improvement across the board," he said.
"Especially in a World Cup season, it's not going to be an easy ride all year for anyone.
"With the competitiveness of the league, there's no easy games. Obviously our goal at the start of the year is that, minimum, we're in the top four and ideally we want to win the league.
"It's early in the season, but we're under no illusions about how big a game Friday is for us to get back to winning ways, especially at home.
"Away from home there's not a lot of teams picking up wins and that's why home form is so important."
With last week's Leinster defeat marking a second consecutive game without a try, Doak admits there is a creeping aggravation that chances taken earlier in the season are now going begging.
"There's a bit of frustration there," he said.
"Obviously the last couple of weeks haven't gone our way.
"Friday was disappointing. Leinster had four or five chances and capitalised twice, we had four or five chances and only capitalised once. Those are the fine margins that you need against the top sides.
"The guys are training really well and we're putting some good stuff together during the week, but maybe it's just down to that little bit of extra pressure.
"The skill sets fall down, a little bit of over-eagerness to see the holes maybe and those are the small things that just haven't gone our way over the last couple of weeks. In the early part of the season we did score a fair few tries, I think we're maybe second in the league, you get these peaks and troughs.
"It's frustrating, when you have been getting tries early doors you want to keep it going.
"As I said, we want to play a brand of rugby, ball in hand, put teams under pressure, but it's key that you deliver when you get down there.
"That's a real focus of ours and we have to make sure we keep that level of accuracy. Against the top teams you only get one or two chances."