Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has underlined the importance of the next two RaboDirect PRO12 games in the countdown to the Heineken Cup semi-final.
Connacht provide the opposition in Galway on Saturday (5.15pm) and the following Friday night will see PRO12 leaders and fellow-Heineken Cup semi-finalists Leinster visit Ravenhill for what may well be McLaughlin’s last home match.
If Ulster are to have another home game after the Leinster fixture then they must leapfrog Ospreys, Munster and Glasgow to finish second in the table. The runners-up qualify for a home game with the third-placed club in the PRO12 semi-finals.
With April 20 being Ulster’s last outing before facing Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium, it promises to be an emotion-charged occasion.
“When we take on Edinburgh we’ll need to know that we’re going there fully prepared and ready for the challenge. That’s why we’ll be leaving no stone unturned in the next two weeks,” McLaughlin said.
Still tingling in the warm after-glow of having beaten Munster in Sunday’s epic quarter-final at Thomond Park, the coach reflected on the progress Ulster have made in the past three seasons, particularly in terms of developing on-field leaders.
“Three years ago, in my first year at the club, we recognised that when Rory (Best), Stevie (Ferris) or Paddy (Wallace) weren’t playing, what we had was a very young, talented squad but one where the development of leaders wasn’t quite right,” he explained.
“So we got help; we brought in Johann (Muller), Ruan (Pienaar) and Pedrie (Wannenburg). It was a huge fillip for us and it has proved to be worth its weight in gold because now we’ve seen others come through.
“Chris Henry has developed dramatically, Dan Tuohy has come on leaps and bounds, Darren Cave has been to the fore in the backline and has been outstanding.”
Expressing the satisfaction he has taken from seeing those players mature, McLaughlin allowed his thoughts to drift back to Sunday in Limerick and the part played by back-up staff in that memorable triumph.
“I reckon I’m working with the best management team Ulster have ever had,” he said. “When I look at the efforts they have put in, I’m full of gratitude and admiration for them.
“They are the people the public don’t see and sometimes they are forgotten, but I know that without them we couldn’t function.
“Sarah (Sherry) and Mick (Ennis) for all the administration and the kit management that pair do; the medical team – Webber (Dr Michael Webb), GG (Gareth Robinson) and Alan (McCaldin) – the conditioners Matt (Maguire) and Jonny (Davis), the coaches Neil (Doak) and Jonny (Bell) and our analyst Alex McCloy. It’s a fantastic team, so all credit to them.
“This week, in particular, you have to hand it to the medics who worked so hard on Stephen (Ferris) to get him ready for Thomond Park and made sure he was able not only to play but to deliver a man of the match performance.
“Sunday was a day when we needed our great players to be great and they were. I think we had 15 great players out on the pitch,” he said.
Explaining his thinking behind having started and finished with the same team – virtually unheard of in the modern-day professional game – McLaughlin said: “We could have brought Paul Marshall on and we thought about it. We could have brought Willie Faloon on and we thought about that, too. We could have brought on Paddy McAllister or Lewis Stevenson. Any of them.
“None of our replacements would have let us down, absolutely no doubt about that. But the boys who were out there were doing brilliantly and it was so tight that we didn’t want to disrupt what we had going,” he added.
“Everybody who travelled down to Munster has come back a hero. Now what they have to do is build on that and make sure they leave a huge legacy behind.”
Meanwhile tickets for the Heineken Cup semi-final at the Aviva on Saturday, April 28 are being snapped up via Ticketmaster.
Currently they are available only to current Ulster season ticket-holders, who can purchase up to eight tickets up until 11.45pm tonight.
Season ticket holders unable to buy via Ticketmaster have their chance to purchase over the counter today at Ravenhill from 10am until 5pm.
Ulster have ring-fenced 20,000 tickets and with Edinburgh understood to have booked a relatively small allocation the tournament organisers, ERC, yesterday put the Scots’ unallocated tickets on general sale via Ticketmaster.