Ulster Rugby coach Mark Anscombe calls for focus during festive period
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has warned that his side not to lose their focus ahead of Friday night's return to the PRO12 when they host Zebre at Ravenhill (kick-off 7.05pm).
Despite Ulster's maximum point haul from their Heineken Cup double-header with Treviso, and the fact that Zebre were whacked 64-3 by Saracens, Anscombe sent out a clear message that his side must not underestimate the lowly Italians.
And Anscombe's call came after Ulster appear to have come through last Saturday's 35-3 win over Treviso reasonably unscathed, though Roger Wilson is a pressing concern after the number eight picked up an ankle injury and will be assessed regarding his involvement in Friday's game later this week.
"The Christmas period is going to be a defining part of the season for us," the Ulster coach said.
"And we've got to be really careful if you look at our next five games," he added before also listing the forthcoming PRO12 games with Leinster and Munster before the crunch European ties with Montpellier at home and then a possible qualification decider away to Leicester Tigers.
"You could put all your focus on that and then Zebre quietly slip in and you underestimate them and they can do a job on you. We only played them a couple of weeks ago and that was one hell of a battle," stated Anscombe.
"We've got to be on our toes to make sure that we treat them with the respect they deserve and get that job done before we start worrying about the others."
Regarding the European situation – Ulster lead Pool Five by three from the Tigers – Anscombe added: "Nothing's changed and it's still going to be one hell of a task to go to Welford Road and get a result. But the fact is that we're in control."
On a more positive note, second row Lewis Stevenson has returned to full training from his medial ligament injury and could be involved on Friday.
Elsewhere, Tommy Bowe has stepped up his rehabilitation and could be back in mid to late January while the recovery of Rory Best, Nick Williams, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry continues to be assessed.
Anscombe looks set to rest several of his frontline stars for this week's game as fourth-placed Ulster prepare for a hectic festive period
This looks likely to mean starts for Paddy Wallace – after two games for the Ravens following his nine-month absence – as well as outings for Declan Fitzpatrick and Ricky Andrew and others against Zebre in what will be the fourth consecutive game against Italian opposition.