Belfast Telegraph

McFarland eager for Ulster to make early statement in Champions Cup

Battering ram: Marcell Coetzee is expected to be back to face Bath at the Recreation Ground on Saturday
Battering ram: Marcell Coetzee is expected to be back to face Bath at the Recreation Ground on Saturday

By Michael Sadlier

It's ramping up nicely already. Europe awaits and it's Ulster versus Bath first up on Saturday at the Recreation Ground. The time and place to hopefully lay down a marker for what will follow.

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Playing away first up in the competition hasn't exactly been commonplace for the province and neither has winning, with the last two occasions they started things rolling when not at the Kingspan Stadium ending in defeat - at Bordeaux in 2016 and at Leicester two years earlier - so this challenge has a certain enormity about it.

Though Ulster have won at Bath the previous two times they have played there - indeed, they have yet to be anything but victorious in a total of four European jousts against the West Country side in back-to-back seasons between 2009 and 2011 - that history means nothing now.

This is a new campaign and one which sees Ulster arrive on its threshold with rather more expectation than has been the case in recent times following their qualification for last season's quarter-finals and the manner of their narrow exit in that epic game with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium.

In the pool stages, they finished runners-up last time out to Racing 92 with enough points to get through and the belief is there that this can be replicated in their current group along with Bath, Harlequins and, favourites to come out top, Clermont Auvergne.

There is nothing like putting down a marker first up which would go some way to matching last season's return of two away victories, at Scarlets and Leicester Tigers.

To achieve this, Dan McFarland must get his squad to dig out the type of huge performance which has yet to be witnessed this season but his hopes in achieving this will be boosted by the expected presence of Iain Henderson.

The club skipper has been otherwise engaged up to now due to the World Cup and wasn't deployed in last weekend's bonus-point defeat to Munster at Thomond Park when his fellow Ireland squad members Jacob Stockdale and Jordi Murphy got their first run-outs since the Japan experience.

Throw in warhorse Marcell Coetzee, who was rested for Munster, and Billy Burns, who has not featured for the last two games, and McFarland looks to have his best side ready to rumble at just the right time.

With Stuart McCloskey and Marty Moore having togged out in Limerick, while Will Addison and Louis Ludik are also back in play, this ought to provide some form of indicator as to how close Ulster are to hitting genuine form.

Not for the first time, McFarland makes it bluntly clear what this weekend offers for his squad.

"If we play at our best, it'll give us a chance in the group and if we don't, it won't. As simple as that," he said.

"You're always looking forward to Champions Cup games and we want to get back into the competition and give it a crack."

That leads to some chat about how Ulster have approached the mentality of having to perform away from home and, in particular, the lead-up to last December's one-point win at the Scarlets in the first of the two back-to-back European clashes.

"That is a memorable moment for me," he recalled.

"The way we built up that week and it was player-led, they talked about taking away our own atmosphere to grounds so that applied whether it was going to Scarlets, who might not have had a full stadium, or to Racing (in Paris).

"The lads have done a pretty good job of that on a number of occasions.

"They're certainly not perfect but I'd be pleased with the way that's going. But it'll be a big test this week and we'll find out a bit more about that," added McFarland.

And then he offered some more insight into what is needed to taste victory outside Belfast.

"You've got to show a little bit of bite and a little bit of fight away from home," he said.

In fairness, we saw elements of that at Thomond Park from the front-row which seems to fit with McFarland's explanation.

"That's got to be up front. You can't go away from home and hope that the game will drift along and you'll get into it because we know from experience, if you let the game drift along, before you know it you've been sucker-punched and you're sat on your backside.

"You've just got to take a little bit of Ulster with you and we know what that looks like out here (the Kingspan) and so really we should have that at the forefront of our mind of what it looks like when we're not playing here."

It certainly won't be easy at the Rec. Bath may well have at the very least Sam Underhill, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph back in harness to feature alongside Jamie Roberts, Rhys Priestland and Freddie Burns, older brother of Billy.

"They've got threats all over the field and they have a big front five," said McFarland.

Quite a clash in prospect.

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