Ulster can't afford to slip up, says Ludik
With the Guinness PRO12 set to begin its home straight this weekend, Ulster full-back Louis Ludik has admitted the province know there is little margin for error.
The domestic campaign is set for one of its tightest ever finishes - only eight points separate Ulster in fourth and Edinburgh outside of the Champions Cup places in seventh - with added intrigue provided by a fixture list that pits many of the play-off chasers against one another between now and the first week in May.
One such contest sees Les Kiss' side travel to Scotstoun on Friday night for a meeting with last season's champions Glasgow and Ludik knows that with the likes of Connacht and Leinster still to come next month, any set-back at this time of year will be magnified greatly.
"If we lose one of these last five games it's going to be tough, especially with all the teams very close at the moment," said the South African.
"It's going to be a great run in. The guys are looking forward to it and it's a massive challenge.
"For the European Cup, it's going to be very tough for the team that misses out."
In what has been a testing schedule thanks to last autumn's World Cup, Ulster's players were thankful for their recent break - the side have not played since beating Zebre at the start of this month having previously been in action since mid-October - and Ludik says the squad have come back refreshed.
The 29-year-old is himself now over the groin injury that kept him out of action for the four games prior to the break while star forward Iain Henderson, on the sidelines since December, is also expected to return against Gregor Townsend's men this weekend.
With Tommy Bowe and Wiehahn Herbst also due back before the season's end, and their Irish international contingent set to filter back into contention after the Six Nations, the panel is certainly in a healthier state than this time last month.
"It's never nice being injured," said the man who recently inked a contract extension for next season.
"It's so frustrating, especially a groin injury. I didn't tear it; I just pulled it but any small thing with the groin can take so long. It's a very sensitive muscle.
"It's such a frustrating thing sitting on the pavilion just watching and not able to do anything so I'm really excited to be back.
"Now I'm feeling great and every day is getting better and better."
Having had to work through such a gruelling slate earlier in the year, Ludik thinks the season to this point has been as much a mental challenge as a physical one.
"It was a much needed break, definitely," he said.
"It's a real mental thing to be able to just break away and not think of it for a bit.
"We didn't have that when we played Oyonnax away (in a fixture postponed in November).
"In training you're switched on every day and you're never off really; you think about the game at home.
"It was a long run in, a long period of the season with no breaks.
"They tried to rotate us and give the guys time off every now and then but it takes its toll. You can see with the amount of injuries that we had, the body can only take so much.
"The guys look after us, it's such a professional set-up and the medical side is brilliant here, but the break was really needed and the guys made the most of it.
"Last week was good, we trained and you can see the difference. The guys really stepped it up and we're now fresh."
Travelling to Scotland's second city in a positive frame of mind, Ulster are heading to a ground where they have not won since 2012.
Going head to head with the side that ended their season at the semi-final stage last season, Ludik stresses that fine margins have proven to be their undoing in recent visits to Scotstoun.
"Every time we've went there, we've played well (in defeat)," he lamented.
"There has been a couple of games in which we broke them down but didn't finish them off. We know we can break them down but taking our opportunities is massive for us.
"The semi-final last year, we played very well up until the 60th minute and then they came through.
"They played very well; they were the champions and deservingly so. We know it's going to be a tough game, we beat them over here and they're going to come for us. We just have to pitch up."