Ulster focus on euro zone
Ulster 25 Connacht 0: Having seen off all-comers to date in the RaboDirect PRO12, Ulster are preparing for a fresh challenge.
It is this; are they good enough to translate their league results into similar success in the Heineken Cup where the standard is higher?
Friday night — when they host Castres in their first Pool 4 match — will provide an answer.
Ulster are undefeated in 2012-13, for since beating Bayonne and Newcastle Falcons either side of a draw with Leicester Tigers in pre-season, they have seen off Glasgow, Ospreys, Munster, Cardiff and Connacht.
Their victory over Bayonne was historic in that it was their first ever triumph on French soil.
Their wins against defending PRO12 champions, Ospreys, and Cardiff also were significant, both having been recorded in Wales where all four of last season’s visits ended in defeat.
Munster and Glasgow finished third and fourth respectively in the 2011-12 PRO12 race, so taking their scalps was noteworthy, too.
And Connacht had beaten Ulster 26-21 in Galway in their most recent inter-pro meeting prior to Friday night when a brace of Paddy Jackson penalties — who added the extras to a penalty-try and Nick Williams’s third touch-down in two matches — plus a late score by Luke Marshall, saw the hosts home in comfort.
Even so, the post-match mood was one of self-admonition, with coach Mark Anscombe spelling out the need to raise the standard this weekend. And rather than sulking in the belief that their latest win deserved greater recognition, the players agreed.
That being the case, expect to see last season’s Heineken Cup runners-up crank it up a notch or two against Castres.
“We’ve got to keep lifting the bar ourselves and not get drawn down to what others are doing. We’ve got to be clinical in our own performance,” Anscombe said.
“We’ve got a good pack that can win set-piece and we’ve got some very good outside backs so we’ve got to make sure that we use them at the right time and take advantage of opportunities.”
Several times he stressed the shortcoming of “just not being clinical enough at crucial times”, suggesting that will be the area on which Ulster will focus in this week’s countdown to Castres.
On a positive note, he said: “Everyone goes out every week to win their games and we have done that so we can’t be too critical.”
Scrum-half Paul Marshall was singing from the same hymn-sheet when he said: “If we’d been told we’d get five from five, then looking at our fixture list at the start of the season, we’d have taken it, definitely.
“But I think now going into the Heineken Cup we’ve got to up our standards. It’s going to be tougher next week and we want to make sure that we continue with this good form that we’ve shown.”
In Ruan Pienaar’s absence, Marshall has been an excellent understudy. But with the South African due back in Belfast today following his nine-week Four Nations sojourn with the Springboks, Anscombe has to make a big decision.
It is this; after such an arduous tournament will his 2007 World Cup winner be fit — mentally as well as physically — to make his first appearance in an Ulster shirt since last May’s Heineken Cup final defeat by Leinster at Twickenham?
Marshall insisted that up until now, Ulster’s focus — and by implication, his too — has been solely on the PRO12.
“To be honest the Heineken Cup hasn’t been talked about. We’ve just been looking at each game as it has come,” he said.
But now the time to think about Europe has arrived. With that in mind, Marshall pointed to Anscombe’s role, saying: “Obviously he wants us to keep trying to better ourselves. He has been great so far; he has been tough on us to try to get us to improve each week.
“We’ve got a real attacking element to our game at the minute and certainly, if we can continue that, we’ll score points.”
Meanwhile Ulster are awaiting results on the extent of the rib injury suffered by man of the match Williams in Friday’s win over Connacht.