Heineken Cup: I want to bow out in style, says Brian McLaughlin
Brian McLaughlin is aiming to end his reign as Ulster coach on the highest possible note.
McLaughlin knows the clock is ticking on his time at the helm — and ahead of his exit he is determined that the coming weeks will prove memorable for the players, supporters and himself.
His wish-list includes emulating the Ravenhill heroes of 1999 and lifting the Heineken Cup — a dream which moved a step closer to reality with Sunday’s epic quarter-final victory over Munster in Limerick.
And why not make it a double by winning the RaboDirect PRO12 competition as well?
Mac would love to bow out having guided Ulster to success in both competitions.
“We’re in a fantastic place at the moment, but as I keep reminding people, this is only the start,” he said.
“We’re now in uncharted territory; this is all new for this squad, but we have to kick on and show what we can do.
“The fans are ecstatic after Sunday, but we haven’t won anything yet.”
Ulster’s march towards a possible double continues with PRO12 fixtures against Connacht in Galway this Saturday and Leinster at Ravenhill the following Friday (April 20). Then comes the Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium.
The big Dublin showdown with the Scots will take place on Saturday April 28.
Ironically McLaughlin’s tenure in charge of Ulster could all come to an end a week later at Thomond Park, the scene of Sunday’s magnificent 22-16 Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Munster.
Ulster return to Limerick on Saturday May 5 for the last of their 22 scheduled RaboDirect PRO12 fixtures and in view of Easter Sunday’s events there, Munster will be in no mood to permit their visitors back-to-back triumphs at a stadium synonymous with home success.
The PRO12’s top four progress to the semi-finals and Ulster — currently fifth, one point off the pace — may well need to beat Munster again if they are to qualify for a place in the final four Play-offs.
The PRO12 semi-finals are on the weekend May 11-13, with the final a fortnight later.
Wedged in between on May 19 is the Heineken Cup final — which will be stage at Twickenham — and should Ulster beat Edinburgh they would then face the winners of the Clermont v Leinster semi-final.
“It’s going to be a squad thing from here on in,” a jubilant McLaughlin said.
“We have to go down to Galway this weekend and to ask boys to go through it again after Thomond Park is going to be difficult.
“Every game is a really big one now and that’s where you’ve got to be measured.
“The number of bumps and bangs we’ve taken this week mean we’ll have to make a few decisions after taking a re-cap of who is fit and able to go again for another big game.
“When we’ve done that, then we’ll decide on the team we’ll send to Connacht.
“That’s going to be another huge test for us so we’ve got to be right and make sure we’re focused for it.”
Stephen Ferris’ ankle stood up to a full 80 minutes against Munster, but it is likely that he will only face Connacht if 100 per cent fit.
“It’s a crucial game in terms of our PRO12 hopes so in that case it might be prudent to use our squad and make sure that all of our players are kept in top quality order,” said McLaughlin.
Lauding his panel he added: “I’m full of praise, not only for the guys who played in Limerick on Sunday, but the whole squad for the effort they have put in this season.
“Whatever team Ulster put out will be what we believe to be the best one for the job.
“We’re trying to ensure that we keep flying in two competitions so we have to balance everything in order to do that.
“We’re in a fantastic place at the moment, but as I keep reminding people, this is only the start.
“We’ve got to go and win in Galway — which is very difficult —and when it comes to Heineken Cup time again we have to go and win at the Aviva.
“This is where we have got to. This is where we are, but it’s not our destination.
“We’re still journeying on two fronts.”