Belfast Telegraph

Leali'ifano wants to wrap up a knockout present for Ulster

Ulster v Harlequins, Champions Cup: Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.45pm

By Jonathan Bradley

When Ulster's Operations Manager Bryn Cunningham first tried to sell a short-term stay in the northern hemisphere to Christian Leali'ifano, it's unlikely that days like Sunday will have featured heavily in his sales pitch.

Hailing from Canberra, the Wallaby fly-half was one of a few in the side's travelling party giving curious glances skywards as the snow came down ahead of the crucial Champions Cup clash with Harlequins.

But he was thrilled to see the visitors master the conditions at the Twickenham Stoop en route to a 17-5 win that gave their quarter-final hopes a shot in the arm.

"It was very cold, but an experience nonetheless," said the man who has just six more Ulster games before he returns to the Brumbies.

"It was fun to see the snow falling, but it changed the way we wanted to play the game as well. We're very pleased because it's a tough place to come and win."

In what were hardly ideal conditions for running the ball, Ulster altered the game plan and played an effective brand of rugby utilising a forward pack that played their best game of the season.

With Iain Henderson to the fore, the back-row also containing Sean Reidy and Nick Timoney wrestled control of the game, while the side scrummaged strongly and were given important cameos from Chris Henry, Ross Kane and Andy Warwick.

"The forwards were outstanding," said Leali'ifano. "I think game management, you just have to control the tempo, play in the right area and defend for your lives. I think the forwards did really well and we just dug deep.

"In weather like that, it's going to be all the hard stuff - how your forwards turn up, how you want to defend, and a lot of that is attitude.

"Quins are a quality side but we stayed connected and zoned in, which was nice and pleasing.

"It's down to attitude. When things are tough like that you really have to dig deep and work together. We prepared really well during the week and it was nice to see it come through."

For all the praise rightfully doled out to Ulster's pack after the side's first win on English soil in almost four years, the man of the match award went to scrum-half John Cooney, who controlled matters expertly as well as kicking 12 crucial points off the tee.

For Leali'ifano playing outside him, the former Connacht and Leinster man's contribution was key.

"John was outstanding against Quins and he's been outstanding all year. He's really stepped up. He's kicked well, he's managed things really well and he's controlled things," said Leali'ifano.

"That's helped me a lot. I have super confidence in him every week."

But while the win has Ulster set up well for a runner-up spot in Pool One, it will count for little if they can't repeat the feat in Friday's rematch back at Kingspan Stadium (7.45pm).

"I think it's nice to build some momentum but the job is only half done," confirmed Leali'ifano. "We spoke about that in the changing room afterwards. We just have to really focus on coming home and preparing well, because it's a short turnaround."

For Leali'ifano, whose Ulster contract runs until only the end of the pool stages, signing off having helped Ulster back into the European quarter-finals remains the goal.

"I think it's really important for me to add value to the team wherever I can and to put the team in as good a place as I can to move on in this competition. For me, I want to enjoy the rugby and add where I can," he said.

While Ulster proved to be adept at managing the snow on the field, the weather still had an adverse effect on the squad.

With the team's charter plane initially stuck in Birmingham, the squad faced a long delay in Luton before returning to Belfast only in the early hours of yesterday.

While the players enjoyed a well-deserved day off yesterday, they will beat the cold snap by training at the indoor facilities at Jordanstown today.

With a short turnaround to be managed, Ulster will be sweating over the fitness of Rory Best, who will more likely than not be ruled out, and Tommy Bowe, although Robbie Diack should be available again after back spasms.

Already out of the competition, Harlequins seem sure to be without England duo Danny Care and Chris Robshaw.

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