Despite two defeats from three pre-season friendlies, Ulster coach Matt Williams is not concerned that his side will be undercooked when they open their Magners League campaign against Llanelli at Ravenhill on Friday night.
The arrival of BJ Botha has created much interest and excitement amongst the Ulster players and supporters ahead of the Magners League campaignBy Gavin Mairs
Ulster’s sole victory against Queensland Reds, was sandwiched between defeats to Bath and most recently to Worcester Warriors last Wednesday.
While Williams fielded a largely experimental side against the English Premiership side, in contrast the Warriors sent over their strongest available XV in a bid to hit the ground running for the start of their league campaign this Sunday against Northampton.
The Ulster coach however, while admitting that injuries had disrupted his selections over the course of his side’s three games, is confident his side will be ready to do battle against the Scarlets.
“It is just the way the cards have fallen,” said Williams of the enforced changes to his selection policy over the three friendlies.
“It is a long season and we had to get the players (coming back from injury) out because otherwise then you are getting out them out when competition points are at risk.
“Ideally, if we had got them all cleared for the Queensland game, I would have played them in a one big hit but it just didn’t happen.
“And we didn’t want to risk players like Clinton Schifscofske, Robbie Diack and Isaac Boss against Worcester because they were all carrying small knocks.
“Ask me at 10pm after Llanelli and we will know if I got it right but it is just the way the ball has bounced. The IRFU also asked for the Ireland boys only to play one game and we can’t argue with that. And the beauty is that they have done their weights and have had a good physical hit-out and will be fresh for Friday.”
Williams, moreover, is excited by the options that are at his disposal now after a number of his lower profile new signings and rising home-grown young guns put in promising displays in the three games. The arrival of former Springbok prop BJ Botha for his first training session at Newforge yesterday, has only heightened expectations within the camp.
“Botha is with us now, we have Rory (Best) to come back and a choice of two or three looseheads,” added Williams, speaking about his options up front.
“Ryan (Caldwell) was a real plus and no-one thought he could get through 80 minutes (after coming back from hip and knee injuries), Carlo (Del Fava) and Ed (O’Donoghue) are playing well, (Kieron) Dawson and Davy (Pollock) are playing great while you have Matt McCullough and TJ (Anderson) playing great at six and Robbie Diack at No 8.
“Even looking at just the forwards, we have selection problems which are great, we certainly didn’t have them last season.”
While Williams admits the friendlies have shown up weaknesses in his side, what has encouraged him has been significant improvements both with and without the ball.
“Our defensive systems have been much, much better,” he added.
“It has worked a lot better than it has in the last couple of years. Secondly when we have got our offensive system going it has also worked.
“What we have done as coaches is stepped back, given them more fitness and less rugby purposely for a period to pump the conditioning into them.
“Now we are all over teams in the last quarter and that is what we want to do.
“The last bit is that our new blokes have fitted in brilliantly. I didn’t think Ed could play as well as he is playing and Clinton’s turn of pace has caught the eye. Ian Humphreys has also done really well. With the young guys too we now have stiff competition in the squad.”