Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

Afoa focused on Ulster finishing job

John Afoa wants to propel Ulster into the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup

When he finally got some downtime it wasn’t exactly a case of lying around the place resting those weary bones and aching joints.

Instead, John Afoa was on a plane to New Zealand and not that long after he got over there he found himself on the long haul back again passing through the multiple time zones to, once more, wreck his body clock to get a 40-minute hit-out against the Scarlets.

“Yes, I went home for a few days which was very good,” says the Auckland native whose beard is looking ever more fearsome as it continues its seemingly unchecked advance.

“It was important both for myself and to keep my wife happy,” he says with that typically laconic delivery and smile.

He had certainly deserved some leave from the frontline and after helping see off Leinster at Ravenhill where the Ulster scrum had pretty much milled their counterparts, with Afoa doing a clear job on Cian Healy, Ulster’s world class tight-head prop then skipped any involvement in the second defeat of the season down at Thomond Park.

His return, regardless of how jet-lagged he may have felt, was timely and it was hardly entirely coincidental that Ulster’s second half revival against the Scarlets began to gain momentum once the powerfully destructive Afoa had joined the action.

Not that the 29-year-old chooses to linger on what he did last Friday night.

Instead, he is already viewing the bigger picture which is Europe.

“I’m back now to do a job,” is his take on it all.

“I did some of it last weekend and, now, we’ve got another two blocks to go.”

And not just any two outings, this is now where Ulster must show that there is substance to all the hype surrounding their season up to now. The plan is simple; win their two remaining Pool Four games and finish top of the group with, hopefully, the added benefit of a home quarter-final to follow.

“Glasgow on Friday night is like a final to us,” Afoa states.

“If we drop this game we can’t guarantee anything. We need to win and win it well to give us a chance to make the quarters.”

He’s already more than hinted at the requirement of Ulster nailing down a bonus point at Ravenhill, but the All Black quickly lowers expectations slightly by reiterating the fundamental need to just win the game.

“It would help if we got into that situation (bonus point territory), but four points is going to be big and if it comes down to us going to Castres (the following Saturday) needing to win, that will be another measure of the team,” he says.

“We have shown we can go away and react when have needed to win a big game,” he adds without getting too involved on the difficulty of winning in France or, indeed, dwelling on permutations which might even see pool leaders Ulster secure the group on Friday night.

Any suggestion that Glasgow, who though they are second to Ulster in the PRO12 League will exit Europe after next week’s home game with Northampton, will turn up on Friday lacking interest is immediately dismissed.

As is the fact that Ulster have already beaten them twice, once in the opening league clash back in September and the other in the second round of European games the following month, this time at Scotstoun.

“They’ll want to get one win in the Heineken,” Afoa says and, indeed, the Warriors came agonisingly close to seeing off Castres over in France last month.

“They’ll be coming here and be looking for that win.

“Even though we’ve beaten them twice already we can’t take anything for granted and Friday night is going to be tough enough.

“The set-piece is going to be important and we can’t muck around too much, we just have to put the screws on them,” the prop maintains.

This neatly leads to some discussion about French referee Pascal Gauzere (left) and how vital it will be for Ulster to get him onside at the lottery that is now interpretation at the set-pieces.

Ulster will expect to dominate, but Glasgow are sure to throw a few shapes to confuse the man in the middle as to what is going on.

“Actually, I think French refereeing suits us at the set-piece,” Afoa argues.

“They will let the scrums go on and they are not afraid to give penalties but they are also not too quick to jump on penalties too.”

Ulster are where they want to be, yet there is still much grafting to be done and no better man than Afoa to remind us of the fact.

“We’re in a good position, but, look, we still need to be there at the end.”

Message received loud and clear.

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