Heineken Cup: McLaughlin ready for French test
Biarritz Olympique come to Ravenhill tomorrow occupying pole position in Pool 4 in the Heineken European Cup.
Runners-up in 2006 and again seven months ago, currently they lead second-placed Ulster by three points.
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin is highly respectful of who they are and what they have done.
“Biarritz are an extremely strong side; they have a great pedigree in the Heineken Cup,” he said. “They were last season's finalists and have openly stated they want to win this tournament.
“In players like Imanol Harinordoquy, Dimitri Yachvili and Damien Traille they have some smashing individuals and we are under no illusions that we are in for an extremely tough game.
“Biarritz are a top quality side, no doubt about that, and although they had a little hiccup when they lost at Aironi, they will come here looking for the win.
“That said, we have a proud home record in the Heineken Cup over last two seasons, winning our last seven tournament matches at Ravenhill, and I am sure we will give Biarritz a warm Belfast welcome.
“I think it will be a smashing match.
“We know what we have to try and do, which is to get the win we need to then go to Aironi and play for a quarter-final place,” added McLaughlin, who highlighted the boost Ulster had given themselves by beating Bath at The Rec the season before the present one.
“We beat them home and away in the Pool stages last season and that debut win in England gave us the confidence to go back to Bath this year knowing what we are capable of achieving,” he added.
Against that, Ulster’s first away day in this season’s Heineken Cup ended a 35-15 drubbing by Biarritz in France on October 17.
McLaughlin grimaces at the memory of what happened that sunny autumnal afternoon in south-west France on the shore of the Bay of Biscay.
“Obviously we weren’t happy with the end result,” he said.
“We did have opportunities in the first half but we didn’t put points on the board.
“Then in the second half we made a few errors that Biarritz pounced upon.
“All credit to them for the win and the way they took those chances,” he concedes.
And he follows that up with a positive note.
“Our Heineken Cup destiny is in our own hands, although we are still an improving and emerging side and we know we’re not there yet,” he said.
“We have plenty of work to do. We are not as consistent as we would like.
“However we feel we’re in the process of getting where we want to be and developing the type of rugby we want to play.”
Make no mistake; Ulster are in this to win and in pursuit of that objective they will seek to use every physical and psychological advantage available — French clubs’ away-day history, the crowd, the venue, the weather, whatever.
Something that has stood out this week in the countdown to tomorrow’s date with destiny has been Ulster’s determination not to get caught up in the hype surrounding the fixture.
McLaughlin and each of his players have been singing from the same hymn sheet, the party line being: “We’re preparing for this in exactly the same way as we have for every other match this season; the routines haven’t changed; we’ve done what we do every other week.”
Ulster’s coach and his captain, Rory Best, have been in close harmony throughout the week, insisting ‘it’s just another match’.
Skipper Best stresses: “We’ve tried to keep this week like any normal match week. Nothing has changed in terms of our scheduling. Okay, it’s a Saturday afternoon game as opposed to a Friday night but we’ve trained and have gone about training as usual.
“Yes, there’s big prize at stake if we win but in terms of the way we’ve prepared it’s just been like any other game for us.”
It’s understandable that Ulster are trying to play things down and to that end there has been an impressive tightness about them. Undoubtedly there is a unity of purpose, a common goal, a shared vision, a collective belief.
And agreement as to the tactics whereby the dream can become a reality.