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Heineken Cup: Ulster alive to strengths of Saints

By Niall Crozier

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin yesterday delivered a cleverly-weighted assessment of his side’s prospects against Northampton Saints on Sunday (2.00pm).

Every compliment — and there were quite a few — was offset or qualified.

Initially McLaughlin lauded the quality of the opposition. But in announcing a 31-man squad ahead of Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final clash at Stadium MK (2pm) he promptly balanced his accolades by expressing the belief that Ulster, ranked eighth of the eight runners, can cause an upset against the side rated number one.

“They have had a quality season so far. They’re ranked number one in Europe from the group stages and they’re flying high in the Premiership so you don’t really have to look much further than that. They’re a quality side,” was the compliment.

Then came the first of the all-important qualifying lines: “We’re going over and we know it’s going to be tough. But if we’re on our game and on the money we’ll come out on top,” was McLaughlin’s bold forecast.

Highlighting the English side’s strengths he said: “Their set piece is particularly good; they’ve a very good scrum and a very good line-out.”

But once again came a positive from Ulster’s perspective.

“Around the field they’re a little bit predictable, we feel, in what they’re doing,” was the coach’s follow-up. In other words Ulster have done their homework and know what to expect.

Assessing what is likely to be Northampton’s approach McLaughlin said: “If they can get momentum from the set piece they like to maul a lot. If they get good go-forward (ball) then they’re very difficult to stop, there’s no doubt about that.”

“If” was the telling word in that sentence, however.

Although the match is being played at MK Dons’ stadium rather than Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens home McLaughlin did not see that as a significant factor.

“It’s a home game for them. From our point of view we’ve gone to England and played Bath over there twice. We’ve done well so it doesn’t really matter. We’re away from home and we’re going with an away-from-home mentality.

“Obviously Northampton aren’t playing at Franklin’s Gardens but I don’t think that will make a terrible lot of difference to them.”

His analysis of the situation in which Ulster now find themselves, whilst pragmatic, was positive.

“We’re playing the top-ranked side in Europe. We’re in the top eight and we’re delighted to be there. But we want to go and show that we deserve to be there.

“From that point of view the boys know they have to up their ante. We know we’re going to have to be perfect if we’re going to go there and count,” McLaughlin underlined.

Highlighting Ulster’s new-found ability to win — even when they have not played particularly well — and the emergence of leadership, he said: “I think last season at times we lost games we should have won, no doubt about that. We’ve made no secret of it over the last few months that the people we’ve brought in as leaders and the people we already had here as leaders have linked very well together.

“We’ve a great team spirit, we’ve developed a super culture and we feel that’s benefiting us on the pitch. We’re able to grind out more results now. Our mentality is that we’re going on to the pitch to win.

“Recently (Magners League) games have been exceptionally tight and yes, we mightn’t have been at our best. But we’ve classed them all as cup games and we feel that’s got to be the attitude and the winning mentality we’ve got to have.”

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