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Rugby: Jonny Bell delighted to see Ulster's burning desire

By Michael Sadlier

Though there is no hiding from the fact that next month promises to reveal much about this Ulster squad's realistic ambition and ability, there is a discernible feeling that they are currently in a better place than most observers had assumed would be the case.

Leaving the injuries to Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson and Ruan Pienaar aside – damaging as their absences are sure to ultimately be – Ulster are now three games in and still unbeaten after one home and two away encounters which sees them now only a couple of points adrift of leaders the Ospreys.

Of course it is still early days, but the currently fourth-placed side have demonstrated that they can win games in two very distinct ways, by running in scores as they did against Zebre earlier this month – a rather bizarre fixture scheduling brings the return game in Parma this Saturday – and grinding it out through the forwards while putting in a huge defensive work-rate as was the case at Cardiff Blues last Friday night.

All in all, the indigenous coaching team of Neil Doak (attack), Jonny Bell (defence) and Allen Clarke (forwards) have certainly set their stall out as more than just likely candidates to take Ulster onwards on a more permanent basis once the new coaching structure is unveiled, which will apparently be done before interim coach Les Kiss departs on permanent Ireland duty next month.

As for any white smoke regarding the new coaching set-up, Bell simply put up a wall to that one just as solid as some of his defensive drills.

"We'll wait and see what happens," he said. "The powers that be will decide that, but we've just put our heads down and we're delighted with the way the guys have responded."

Indeed, last Friday's 26-9 win at Cardiff Blues again brought to the fore the side's physicality and hunger for the unglamorous work of tackling while also emphasising that they possess a pack of forwards who can dig them out of difficult situations if required to do so.

That might actually prove to be the case again on Saturday as what is expected to be a much-altered selection travel to Parma, where Ulster have struggled but won over the last couple of seasons.

Some of the national squad players who returned from a two-day mini-camp with Joe Schmidt yesterday are thought likely to be rested, although Jared Payne, who also attended the session, may well play after overcoming his hip injury.

And another plus from last Friday was that their defensive organisation was also put through a rigorous test and did not concede a try on Cardiff's artificial turf.

"We haven't always been perfect," Bell said of Ulster's second straight win.

"But we've a real great work ethic. I think that showed against the Scarlets (their drawn first game), that there's a belief and desire there and I think that's going to get us a long way."

The scrum was again rightly lauded and Wiehahn Herbst's arrival at tight-head prop seems to have, so far, somewhat offset the fears that John Afoa's departure would damage Ulster's scrummaging power.

Clarke has also done considerable work at the lineout where the Blues simply failed to live with a devastating series of driving mauls Ulster launched to such notable effect.

More of the same, with a few more attacking plays thrown in, will be required this weekend.

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