Ulster's Paul Marshall: Everyone is gunning for us now
Ulster's Paul Marshall knows that for as long as the province remains top of the Pro12 table, they will go into each game with a target on their back.
Les Kiss's men enter the weekend, where they will face Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium on Sunday afternoon (2.30pm kick-off), as the league leaders with the scrum-half sure that opposition will now prepare for each clash with an added determination to dislodge them from the summit.
So tight are things at the top that by the time the unusual Sunday kick-off rolls around, Ulster could have dropped to third with Marshall struggling to recall a more competitive table with eight games remaining. "It's all to play for but they're gunning for us now, everyone is," he said yesterday.
"The pressure is on. Once you go top, it's all about trying to maintain it.
"In this league, so little separates the teams in the table, so little separates some of the games even."
Sunday's opposition are well-versed in the pressures of leading the way, having started brilliantly only to falter in recent weeks, and Marshall is wary of the threat posed by the west Wales outfit.
"When Scarlets were at the top for so long, they were in our position," he said.
"Everyone was gunning for them; we were gunning for them too.
"Obviously we're a few places above them but it's only one point ahead of them and we know that they're a dangerous outfit.
"They like to move it and we appreciate the brand of rugby they play. We like what they try to do with the ball.
"We know it's going to challenge us and our defence. The onus is on us to hold on to the ball."
With usual number nine Ruan Pienaar going through the return to play protocols - Ulster are also awaiting news on the availability of Louis Ludik, Rob Herring and Rory Scholes but lock Dan Tuohy is not yet ready to make a return - Marshall could be set to start against Wales's current leading region for a second time this season.
In the reverse fixture at Parc y Scarlets, Wayne Pivac's men became the only Pro12 side this season to deny Ulster even the consolation of a losing bonus point and Marshall says that from that day forward he knew the Llanelli outfit would be a different proposition this year than in seasons past.
"I think that's the only (league) game we didn't get anything from," he recalled of the 22-12 defeat all the way back in September.
"We gave away the penalty at the end right in front of the posts (to lose a bonus point) and it was a big disappointment.
"They're a good outfit. They started the season so well, they were winning every week.
"It's Scarlets, and then the likes of Edinburgh and Connacht, that for me are the most improved teams in the league.
"The boost they've had coming into this season has made the league so much more competitive."
While Marshall admits that his side haven't fully clicked into gear since losing their Irish internationals to the Six Nations, last week's win over champions Glasgow was another example of grinding out a win when not everything went to plan.
To have won nine of their last 11, even if not at their best, would be pleasing for any side but the three-times capped, 30-year-old wants to see more of a cutting edge on Sunday after some of his team's decision-making last weekend did not hold up favourably during review.
"I think the last few weeks the one thing is we've realised is we haven't been on fire but we have been winning, that's probably a good habit to create," he said. "It was a strange game against Glasgow though and obviously we were a wee bit disappointed.
"To be fair to Glasgow, they scramble unbelievably well.
"The number of line breaks we had in the game when you watch it back, they work very hard off the ball to stop you.
"From their point of view, that's to be admired but we felt like we had opportunities and need to start making the most of those."
Last night's Towns' Cup quarter-final tie between Donaghadee and Bangor was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch.
As this is the second postponement the venue will now be reversed so Bangor will be at home at Upritchard Park.