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Malone thinks ahead of the pack as he plots latest plan of attack

By Michael Sadlier

Niall Malone's thought pattern had already clicked into the next game by half-time last Sunday. As Ulster's performance analyst he earns his corn by thinking ahead anyway, but looking at the horrible fact that Oyonnax had racked up a 23-0 lead, he was envisaging what might unfold tomorrow at Allianz Park if things continued to unravel in France.

"Nothing had gone well and, you know, you're thinking Saracens on the same type of pitch and with the weapons they have ..." he breaks off but doesn't really need to go further.

"But from the depths of despair to come out of there with a win, well, it's actually made this week look after itself as far any team talks and emotional build-ups go.

"Look, you can't win a game purely on emotion, but if you don't have emotion you've no chance of winning," the former Leicester Tigers player adds.

And so, 24 unanswered points later, the European campaign still survives. Though Malone is clearly still upbeat after Ulster's astonishing comeback in France, everything changes now against the unbeaten pool leaders Saracens who simply don't lose many games, home or away, in the Champions Cup or the Aviva Premiership.

"If we'd suffered a big loss on Sunday the belief really wouldn't have been in the minds of the players, but we saw two sides of what we can produce.

"Because we've beaten Toulouse home and away I think everyone thinks we're back up there but we do know that we're now playing one of the very best European teams this weekend."

Sarries easily swatted Ulster aside in the pool game back in November, racked up a huge total in the back-to-back clashes with Oyonnax but, last weekend, lost their first game of the season -after 12 straight victories - when narrowly beaten at Harlequins.

So, a glimmer of hope as Malone helps plot what could be a much sought after result after all the damage Sarries have previously wreaked on Ulster?

"Look, they were leading and they got a red card and then conceded 11 points after that so," Malone points out, "would they have lost otherwise?"

"We've gone through that Quins game with a fine-tooth comb and we've certainly been encouraged that Quins didn't play the percentages against Saracens but were ambitious," he adds.

"And I think if you do play that way Saracens are so good at percentages that you'll probably lose so it's going to take something, not so much flamboyant, but a bit more interesting (to win).

"I also think Saracens could be particularly strong because they lost," he points out.

"I would have actually preferred them to have won (last weekend) because the longer the winning streak is, the more you're likely to lose a bit of focus."

And as for having to play a second week on an artificial surface, Malone argues that having already had game-time on Oyonnax's 3G pitch could actually work in Ulster's favour over at Allianz Park.

"Yes, the bodies are slightly more fatigued but it's actually been timely to have all that out of the way on an artificial pitch, as we always felt that going to Saracens would be absolutely pivotal."

"And maybe Sarries are due a slightly under par performance against us," he adds hopefully.

Belfast Telegraph


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