Belfast Telegraph

Wilson throws down gauntlet on key fixtures

By Jonathan Bradley

With Ulster fighting on two fronts, flanker Roger Wilson believes the Province must prove they have strength in depth to compete in both Europe and the Pro12.

A pair of wins against Toulouse over the last two weeks has put Les Kiss' side firmly in the hunt for a Champions Cup quarter-final place but their attention has switched to the Pro12 for the festive period.

With Connacht to come on Boxing Day, followed by the hosting of Munster in the first weekend of 2016, it is a crucial double-header for a side who still sit sixth in the standings after early season struggles on the road.

Lose to Connacht this weekend and the gap between the two could be ten points.

While these festive fixtures always bring squad rotation for the team's Irish internationals, Ulster's young core have already been filling in for more established stars this season.

With Iain Henderson, Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Stuart Olding, Dan Tuohy, Darren Cave all missing in recent weeks, and the expected return of Chris Henry this week offset by the absence of Craig Gilroy, those taking their place have made important contributions in what is now a three-game winning streak.

The likes of Kyle McCall, Alan O'Connor, Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey have all caught the eye, with Wilson praising their impact.

"In the last week, and week before that, what you've seen is a real squad effort," said the senior back-rower.

"Everyone who has been called upon came in and delivered."

While Marshall's move to outside centre has facilitated an impressive midfield partnership with McCloskey, the Province have increasingly used reserve hooker Rob Herring as a back-row replacement.

For Wilson, it is important that players are ready to fill in wherever necessary.

"You've just got to be prepared and know all your calls even if you're going in there out of position.

"There were some tired bodies afterwards in the changing room in Toulouse but it was all worth it in the end."

With Toulouse having been seen off twice in nine days, Ulster face Oyonnax twice next month in Pool 1 either side of a trip to London for a rematch with Saracens.

With former Ulster coach Mark McCall leading the Aviva Premiership side to another impressive season in Europe, and having already beaten Ulster in Belfast, they look set to top the group but Wilson acknowledges that the meetings with Oyonnax present a real possibility for progression.

"Toulouse hadn't lost at home this season up until now so to break that record is brilliant," he said. "It's always a tough thing in rugby after a big performance at home to come away a week later and it's what we talked about all week so it was great to deliver.

"Ideally we probably need to pick up as many bonus points as possible now.

"Oyonnax are probably out of it by this stage so you probably target those games but we've definitely given ourselves a good chance."

First though, it's the familiar trip to Galway with Wilson saying that the time to savour the heroics in the south of France has passed.

"These big wins don't come around too often but it's a six day turnaround so there's not a lot of time to prepare," he said.

"There's a lot of big games still to come in the next six weeks or so."

Pro12 League: Connacht v Ulster Sportsground, Boxing Day, 6pm

Belfast Telegraph

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