Heineken Cup: Ulster must lift their game
Since losing to Munster on the opening day of 2011 Ulster have played 10 matches, winning nine.
Friday night’s 20-18 Ravenhill victory over Scarlets made it six successive Magners League triumphs, leaving Ulster in control of their own destiny in terms of securing one of the semi-final play-off places on offer to those finishing in the top four.
Those half-dozen wins include a trio in which the margin was two points and one where it was three.
Their 32-13 demolition of Cardiff at Ravenhill on February 25 is the most recent example of Ulster having given anyone a tanking, for which reason they know they are going to have to raise their level of performance considerably on Sunday afternoon when they go head-to-head with Northampton Saints at Stadium MK.
The Heineken Cup is a cut above the Magners League, particularly now that it has reached the knock-out stage in which there are no second chances.
Ulster captain Rory Best underlined the fact that the pace and mental and physical intensity of Sunday’s game will eclipse last Friday night’s work-out.
“I think there’s no doubt that mistakes by us will be punished. You can’t make too many unforced errors in the Heineken Cup group stage, never mind the quarter-final,” the 47 times-capped Irish international hooker said.
“There’s going to be a lot of emphasis on us this week. We’ll take a long hard look at how we turned over a lot of ball quite easily in the first half against Scarlets but then did quite well in the second in terms of keeping hold of it.”
Reflecting on those six straight wins Best added: “Confidence has to be high. We’re in a very good place at the minute — second in the Magners League and into the quarter-final in Europe which is what we’ll be very much focusing on now.
“We’ll put the Scarlets game to bed on Monday having learnt our lessons from it.”
Looking ahead to the coming challenge, coach Brian McLaughlin said: “Northampton had a little bit of a down time during the Six Nations. They had a difficult period.
“But, like ourselves, they’ve got their key guys back and last week against Wasps they showed exactly what they’re capable of so we’ll have to be at our best.”
The Ulster coaching staff have been studying how Northampton play, as McLaughlin revealed.
“We’ve been looking very closely at them since the quarter-final draw was announced,” he said.
“There’s lots of little things that we have been looking at defensively and have been building in over the past few weeks to try and make sure we’re not suddenly changing the direction of the ship come Tuesday (when Ulster’s Heineken Cup preparations begin).
“We’re focused. We know that the guys are ready to go. The key thing for us this week is to make sure that the boys are ready to play at their best on Sunday.
“But at the same time it’s a long time since we’ve been in this position so we want to make sure that we really enjoy it and that we get the best out of ourselves come Sunday.
“From our point of view we want this week to be as enjoyable as possible. This is something we haven’t experienced for a long, long time in Ulster so we want to enjoy it, to make sure we go to Milton Keynes in a good frame of mind, that we give it a real good blast and show just what a quality rugby side we are.”
It won’t just be a case of savouring the moment and enjoying the ride, however; there is going to be a lot of very hard work in the next few days, particularly for the forwards.
Highlighting Northampton’s ability in the set pieces the Ulster coach said: “They put a lot of emphasis on that.
“Their line-out is strong and their set scrum is one of their weapons.
“If they get go-forward ball off their set piece then they come down the middle very aggressively with (James) Downey and those are things that we have got to look at negating.
“We’ve got to get at their set piece and make sure that we’re on the front foot if at all possible.”