Good start but plenty of room for improvement, says skipper Ulster Iain Henderson
Having had a taste of knock-out rugby last season, it's a desire to once again experience that thrill providing the motivation for Ulster through these early months of the season, according to skipper Iain Henderson.
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After a five-year absence from the sharp end of the Heineken Cup, the northern province let a semi-final spot slip through the fingers when pushing Leinster all the way in the Aviva Stadium last March, while their 2018/19 campaign finished up with a place in the PRO14's final four, even if there was something of a rude awakening against Glasgow in Scotstoun.
The past fortnight has witnessed two European performances laced with grit and determination and, more importantly, both ending in victory, with Henderson believing Ulster are now all too aware of what they were missing out on before the arrival of Dan McFarland.
"At the end of last season we talked about how much we enjoyed those playoff games," said the lock who sealed Friday night's 18-13 win over Clermont with a key turnover after the clock went red.
"Obviously they didn't go our way but guys really enjoyed being there, really enjoyed the opportunity to play knockout rugby. We realised from years gone by that to get to knockout rugby you have to do well throughout the whole season, not just wait until the end and try and do that."
Having been a part of the set-up since his debut during the 2011/12 campaign, Henderson says he has never before experienced the intensity of training he's witnessed since returning from the World Cup to the side that now sit of top of the Heineken Cup's Pool 3.
"It's an attitude, a desire," he said.
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"There's energy and competitiveness in training, not in a vicious sense or a malicious sense, just in an everyone wants to be better sense, everyone is striving to do the extra things that make the team better.
"It could have been like last week when Kieran Treadwell wasn't involved (in the win over Bath) but he was actively helping out with the lineout, ensuring that it would function as best as possible last week. He wasn't involved in the matchday 23. I'm sure it was an incredibly difficult decision for the coaches.
"He could easily just have sat back (and said) 'I'm not involved I'm going to take it easy this week. But he didn't he worked really hard throughout the whole week.
"That is just one example, in my mini-unit of lineout forwards that I can see the direct impact of someone outside the 23 and that is scattered through the whole squad. There are many guys striving to make the 15 who are on the pitch perform as well as possible.
"The character of the boys, as I've seen from afar during pre-season and into the season, is phenomenal. It's been unbelievable coming in over the last few weeks to work with them. The training is next level, it's different to any training I've been involved in with Ulster before.
"The character that you're talking about is built in training because it's not the XV or the 23, it's the entire squad and development players who drive it throughout the whole of Ulster Rugby."
Two from two in Europe for a first time since their clean sweep of the pool in 2013/14, Ulster will play Harlequins in the festive back-to-backs knowing that replicating the feat of two seasons ago and winning the pair would have them with one foot in the quarter-finals come Christmas.
Harlequins kept their own last eight hopes alive with a win over Bath at The Stoop and Henderson is not one for looking too far down the track.
"Looking at previous years, I'm sure you could pick out a lot of teams who have gone two from two, and that's by no means in this competition job done," he warned.
"Not even slightly job done. We need to concentrate. Back to back games are always difficult because it's an opportunity for teams to see how you're playing the first week and then come back at you with a bit of a vengeance or carrying a bit of momentum.
"We need to knuckle down, and we talked about it after the game, we need to use this as a building block going forward.
"There's a lot we have to work on, including our discipline - an 80-minute disciplined performance would be ideal.
"We can use that as a benchmark."
Areas of concern from Friday's win, a game the side dominated but won only narrowly thanks to a moment of magic from John Cooney, will include both the scrum and the penalty account which had swollen to 15 by the end of contest. Henderson, though, added that to be sat with eight points from two games knowing there is considerable room for improvement can be taken as a plus point.
"I think you can play games and get wins and scrape through but playing against the quality opposition that we've played the last number of weeks, to perform well and win and still know that you can get better is very positive," he said. "I think one of the good things is that the players are fully aware of that.
"Nobody is sitting down there thinking they had a perfect performance. Everyone is incredibly happy with the work that they've done but the hunger to get better is phenomenal."
Those games against Harlequins come only after a one-week return to PRO14 action when Scarlets will be the visitors to Kingspan Stadium on Friday night. It is expected McFarland will opt for a much changed side in what is a congested run of key games.