Defence coach Jonny Bell knows that the outcome of Ulster’s games between now and the end of 2012 will play a big part in determining how their season pans out.
“This is a crucial time of the season. We’ve had a good start, but we all know how quickly that can be undone, so this really is crucial for us,” said Bell, underlining the fact that he sees Sunday’s game against Zebre in Parma — followed five days later by a meeting with Treviso — as being massively important fixtures.
“We’ve got these two massive games in Italy to continue the momentum to bring us into the Scarlets,” was his assessment of the schedule.
The Llanelli-based Welshmen currently lie second, two points behind Ulster whose game in hand of the Welsh region is on Sunday, leading up to their seismic December 2 encounter.
“That will then finish that section of Rabo games, so we want to really push in the next few weeks because it’s a real goal to keep ourselves at the top of the table in that competition,” said Bell (right).
Five days after facing Scarlets in Wales in the PRO12, Ulster will meet Northampton at Franklin Gardens in the Heineken Cup.
“We then come into Europe and, again, that’s a big focus for us, so we have to get ourselves into the right place for that,” he said.
“Then you’re into the Christmas period when you’ve got Leinster and Munster, so this is the start of a massive, massive section of the season for us.”
He is hugely respectful of Sunday’s opponents, despite table-topping Ulster having a 100% record while bottom-of-the-pile Zebre have yet to win.
“They’ve been in the games they’ve played for 60 minutes and sometimes longer.
“Although they have lost their games, those have been pretty tight.
“They haven’t been heavily beaten by anyone so we are well aware that if we’re off the money they’re capable of producing a win against a big side.
“They haven’t lost a great many players whereas we have, so there has been a change in our squad.
“So it’s about us focusing on ourselves, getting ourselves right and getting the players who are coming in up to speed with what we’re trying to do.”
Those named in the provisional 25 include 22-year-old lock James Simpson, the Academy player who won his only Ulster cap to date in last Boxing Day’s defeat by Leinster in Dublin.
The absence of Ruan Pienaar and Paul Marshall — away with the Springboks and Ireland respectively — sees scrum-halves Blane McIlroy and Michael Heaney included while Adam D’Arcy could make his first appearance of the season.