Ulster cannot ease up just yet
The countdown is on to Saturday’s Munster-Ulster Magners League clash at Thomond Park.
Munster, the defending champions, versus Ulster, the current leaders, has the makings of an epic.
In what will be the last round of fixtures until after the autumn international programme — the series resumes on December 4 — Ulster face a huge challenge in consolidating their place at the head of the table.
Backs coach Neil Doak has called for one more big effort before the break.
“Some of the boys have been going since June 8 with only the odd day off here and there, so I think that mentally, if not physically, one or two of them are starting to get a little bit of cabin fever. I think the autumn internationals will be a welcome break for us,” he said.
But before that there is the not so small matter of that trip to Limerick.
Leinster and Edinburgh — second and third with 18 points apiece to Ulster’s 19 — have easier looking tasks this weekend, at home to second-bottom Cardiff Blues and seventh-placed Newport Gwent Dragons respectively.
Edinburgh also have the advantage of playing last — Sunday at 5.05pm — which means that by the time they kick off they will know how everyone else has fared.
The transformation in Ulster’s fortunes under coach Brian McLaughlin has been quite remarkable.
Consider: they went into Saturday night’s Ravenhill tete-a-tete in second place after five matches. At the same stage in 2008/09 they were bottom.
To date Ulster have scored 130 Magners League points. Six matches into last season’s campaign they had managed only 73.
Last season they won seven of their 18 Magners League matches. Already they have chalked up four victories.
And on the other front, 12 months ago Ulster had played and lost two Heineken Cup matches, Stade Francais having beaten them 26-10 in Belfast followed by a 42-21 defeat by Harlequins at The Stoop.
As a result they had no points in pool four, they had scored 31 and conceded 68, giving a differential of minus 37.
Today’s Heineken Cup statistics? Played two, won one and lost the other, but by a four-point margin, so earning a bonus.
That translates as five pool-stage points, 39 for and 29 against giving a differential of plus 10.
Saturday night’s victory was their first against Leinster since May, 2004. Impressive improvement? Undoubtedly.
Significantly, though, Ulster’s feet remain firmly on the ground. And with McLaughlin and his assistants Jeremy Davidson and Doak at the helm, one suspects that no-one will be allowed to get carried away.
McLaughlin’s mantra — in which he has the total support of his able lieutenants — is the need for consistency. And level-headedness.
Doak underlined that, his post-Leinster match assessment being: “It’s a pity we didn’t do that last week.”
His reference to the Murrayfield defeat by Edinburgh confirmed the commitment to eradicating inconsistency.
“Everybody was disappointed after the performance against Edinburgh so it was important that we bounced back.
“We’ve talked about consistency all year and we’ve got the building blocks in place,” he continued.
“We’re away to Munster next and we’re going to have to have another committed performance. If we do, hopefully we’ll come out on top.”
Certainly a Thomond Park win would serve as proof that those blocks are being used to construct an Ulster side which can be relied upon to stand when it really matters.