Belfast Telegraph

Six things that Ulster have to do to stay in the hunt

By Michael Sadlier

The requirement is pretty simple really. Win and you stay in, lose and, well, it's pretty much time to focus the attention on the PRO12.

The likelihood of topping the pool, or making it through as a best runner-up, has looked pretty unlikely since Toulon strode away from Belfast with a win which, coupled with the opening but bonus point loss at Leicester Tigers, may have pretty much cooked Ulster's goose for this European adventure.

Just when we were getting used to the feeling being in a European quarter-final, after having waited so long to taste the knockout stages again, and along comes a trimmed down competition with the bar being raised even higher regarding escape from the pool stages.

A fifth straight year of making it out of the group stage of the competition now rests on Ulster winning all their remaining games and others not quite delivering so, well, perhaps it is better to bin the dream now and just enjoy what is left.

Maybe, but you just get that niggling feeling that Pool Three may have another few surprises up its sleeve, so let's just wait and see before writing it all off just yet.

Not that Ulster will be thinking along these rather negative lines. For them, it is all about following up last weekend's performance with another of the same calibre but, this week, there have still been plenty of work-ons and areas which will have to be more accurate if they are to do the double over what will be a highly motivated Scarlets side.

Here are six areas that will need to be right on the money tomorrow.

Lineouts: While the scrums were sound, this area was simply far too wonky for comfort. The conditions were difficult but to lose five and end up with 74% completion will not have been comfortable reading for skipper Rory Best and Franco van der Merwe.

Steals, overthrows and crooked throws pock-marked Ulster's effort in this key area and the importance of getting it all right was brought into sharp focus for the bonus point try which, throw accurately delivered to Robbie Diack, was created off one of those irresistible driving mauls. More of the same will be needed tomorrow and without the same error rate being repeated.

Turnovers: Dan Tuohy remarked at how Ulster maybe underestimated the abilities of flanker James Davies in this area and noted that after swatting him off, the up and coming player still came back and managed to steal possession. In the end, Ulster conceded 18 turnovers which was five more than the side they comprehensively saw off on the scoreboard. At times Ulster's ball retention was not at the mark and this issue will need to be fixed is they are to flourish at the Parc y Scarlets.

Defence: In fairness, Ulster did not concede a try but, at times, this was as much to do with the Scarlets' inaccuracy when they did get in behind the white shirts. Ulster's scramble defence was up to the task but 18 missed tackles and a completion rate of 82% is not at an acceptable level even if their try line was never crossed.

With Liam Williams around and always dangerous on the ball, and Rory Pitman ready to appear off the bench to make the hard yards, Ulster's first-up tackling just has to be on the money.

Place-kicking: His distribution was deft and accurate but when it came to getting the ball between the sticks, Ian Humphreys struggled to get things going.

Two successful kicks from six could have proved extremely costly and, again, Neil Doak will have hammered home that this level of failure cannot be repeated if Ulster are to realistically get the better of the Scarlets for the second time in succession.

It is possible that Ruan Pienaar may come back into the equation as primary kicker sooner rather than later but, until that happens, Humphreys will need to find his target on a regular basis if the chances fall to him again in tomorrow's match.

Discipline: Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac bemoaned the 16-9 penalty count against his side and you would presume that this is unlikely to be repeated for the home team tomorrow.

Instead, with it being an away game, Ulster might expect to incur rather more of the wrath of referee JP Doyle when it comes to marginal decisions and anything sloppy could cost them dear if they ship any yellow cards or, worse, find themselves being shown one of the red variety as was the case for Declan Fitzpatrick at Zebre while Liam Williams also found himself having to depart the action the last time the sides met at Parc y Scarlets back in September's drawn PRO12 game.

The Scarlets ended up having to play for 20 minutes with 14 men last week and that was essentially how the game slipped away from them when Ulster piled on the points during James Davies' binning - even though it was an entirely different story when Liam Williams (yes, him again) also spent 10 minutes off the field.

So, staying entirely focused and not forcing the referee's hand is an all-important part of what Ulster must do tomorrow.

Injuries: Neil Doak summed things up pretty well by describing the physio room last Saturday night as looking like a "war zone". With Ulster's injury list already notably lengthy the last thing they needed was to lose four players in one game.

But they did and now must cope without Wiehahn Herbst, Nick Williams, Stuart Olding and Stuart McCloskey to add to the already sidelined Paddy Jackson, Jared Payne, Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble and Iain Henderson.

And though they have got Ruan Pienaar and Dan Tuohy back at a critical moment, as well as Luke Marshall, those on the walking wounded list are frontline players whose presence is pivotal to the squad's ambitions for the season. Staying in the European frame by winning at Parc y Scarlets could be very useful indeed as, hopefully, a few more of those big names should have returned by mid-January.

And, of course, the last thing they need is for anyone else to go down in the interim. Heaven forbid.

Belfast Telegraph


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