Heineken Cup: Ravenhill warms up for Bath
Brian McLaughlin is determined to do what no coach other than Harry Williams has done — lead Ulster into the post-pool phase of one or other of the two European rugby competitions.
Last season — his first in charge — he was agonisingly close with an improbable combination of results elsewhere conspiring to see Ulster ousted from Europe.
McLaughlin has not forgotten the disappointment of January 24 past. Nor have the players who went through the delight-despair trauma of victory over Bath at The Rec followed 24 hours later by the unfolding of events they were unable to control ultimately proving to be their undoing.
Adieu Europe. Again.
With back-to-back matches with Bath looming, McLaughlin is only too aware of what is at stake.
He accepts that if Ulster lose tomorrow it would spell the end of their Heineken Cup ambitions for yet another season.
“You’ve got to win your home games in Europe, that has always been the case. Bath present a great challenge for us but if we let this one go then the following week is a dead rubber.
“So, this is a must-win to make sure that the next game is even bigger,” McLaughlin admits.
Ulster’s preparations for those two key fixtures were dealt a blow when last Friday night’s Magners League clash with Newport Gwent Dragons at Ravenhill was postponed.
“The pros are that we didn’t pick up any injuries, but we were looking forward to the Dragons game so we were very, very disappointed that it didn’t take place,” says McLaughlin,
Explaining how that had disrupted Ulster’s plans he continues: “There were people we wanted to give some game time to — like Stevie (Ferris), Andrew (Trimble), Paddy (Wallace) and Ruan (Pienaar) — but we weren’t able to do that which means they’re going straight back in.”
Johann Muller, the former Springboks captain who, in Rory Best’s absence, once again leads Ulster, is upbeat about the impact the return to the international players following their November exertions has had.
“Getting all the international guys back is a huge bonus and there has been something special about training this week. There’s been a little buzz and everybody is really looking forward to Saturday,” said Muller, who has recovered from the shoulder injury he suffered whilst playing against Cardiff on November 21.
“Three weeks ago we were in a bad place, if you can call it that, so there was a lot of pressure on us.
“But, the guys have stepped up and the past two victories have been a big bonus.
Two away wins are always good results and confidence is always going to be up after results like that.”
Bath, too, have international players back on board with England quartet Lewis Moody, Matt Banahan, Shontayne Hape and David Wilson all expected to feature at Ravenhill.
On the down side, they are without captain Luke Watson, outside-half Butch James and lock forward Peter Short, whose misfortune in having torn a bicep after just completing his comeback from knee surgery means he is likely to be sidelined until early February.
Sir Ian McGeechan, Bath’s Performance Director, reckons: “Ulster are formidable.
“They have spent a lot on strengthening their team.
“But that can bring out the best in you — you need that challenge.”
With Bath having struggled to score tries in the past eight weeks, that is a problem they have sought to solve.
To that end, the return of Hape, Moody and Banahan should help.
“In attack we need to be a bit more dynamic and direct then we have been in recent games. That's what we've been working on.
“Maybe we have been a bit predictable but we've had to make more changes than we would have liked,” McGeechan adds.
Bath’s last Premiership win was in late September when they beat Sale Sharks 31-16. Since then they have played eight matches, with their only successes being against Cardiff Blues in the LV Cup and Aironi in Europe.
Gloucester, Biarritz, Wasps (twice) and Saracens have beaten them, while Bath’s trip to The Stoop ended in a 6-6 draw. It’s unimpressive form.
Nevertheless, McLaughlin believes they pose a threat and that some day they are going to hit top gear, destroying whatever unfortunate opponents happen to be in their way.
“Bath may have had a few problems this season — that’s not for me to say — but they’re always a difficult side to play against, they’ve got a great pedigree in this competition and we will be treating them as worthy opponents.
“They will be a very, very difficult side to beat,” the Ulster coach warns.