Jean Deysel helping to power Ulster in right direction
With Ulster belatedly gaining some momentum as the season nears its conclusion, both the team and their summer back-row acquisition Jean Deysel are hitting form just in the nick of time.
The province have won two games in a row for the first time since mid-December after beating Edinburgh and the Ospreys in recent weeks, keeping alive their faint hopes of making the Guinness PRO14 play-offs while maintaining a one-point buffer over Benetton in the crucial battle for Champions Cup qualification next season.
To the fore in both wins has been Deysel, the former Springbok who moved north last summer upon the conclusion of a short-term stint with Munster.
The burly South African, by his own admission, has not hit the heights expected during his time in the Ulster jersey, failing to live up to the standard set in a promising debut until the past fortnight.
While injuries, most notably to his shoulder, have robbed him of the chance to build any momentum, as his testing first season in Belfast nears its conclusion, the 32-year-old has a smile back on his face.
"I'm really enjoying it. Enjoyment was a part that I missed in the beginning," he said. "My body is feeling good again as well. We've a great bunch of guys and we're all working for each other. The enjoyment factor is coming through.
"Personally, the season was stop start. I was frustrated with injury, and then getting back I had to sit out a few games. I battled to put a string of games together. But the last while I'm really enjoying it and I'm trying to contribute off the field as well as on it.
"I missed that being stuck in my own stuff."
Leadership, too, has come in the form of Ulster's returning Irish internationals. Rory Best was back in the number two jersey for the wins over Ospreys and Edinburgh, his first provincial action since the end of January thanks to his involvement in Ireland's Grand Slam bid.
So too Iain Henderson, whose recent showings have been among his best of the season, including a tour de force against Edinburgh that was capped with the bonus point try.
"I do think the leadership that Rory and Hendy bring really helps," said Deysel. "Yes, we do have a few youngsters and, myself, I still feel pretty new in the side and those guys coming back bring a bit of leadership.
"I think it just lifts the whole spirit."
While they had an incredible mix of territory and possession in the win over Ospreys last time out, there were still stand-out performances from the pack, following on from arguably their best collective showing of the season a week prior.
Having lost star import Marcell Coetzee so early on in the season, and always knowing that Henderson and Best would miss large sections of the season through international duty, this campaign was always going to be something of a challenge for those up front. Deysel, though, has been impressed with the recent strides taken, especially by younger players. Recent weeks have seen Ross Kane, Matty Dalton, Tom O'Toole, Nick Timoney and the sadly now injured Matty Rea all contribute.
"We're starting to build as a pack. We want to build that reputation through the last two weeks," he said.
"For me, it's what we've been doing training-wise for a couple of weeks. We've been training well as a group. Guys are in and out of the 23, but then a guy like Ross Kane comes in and he delivers, having not played in a while.
"Matty had (his performance against Ospreys) coming for a while. He's been delivering for a few weeks and I feel he's really complementing the loose trio.
"I think in my job and Sean Reidy, and Nick coming off the bench, it has all worked.
"Matty had a tremendous game but I felt it was coming. I think he's been pushed hard and he's doing well."
On Saturday, Deysel will again expect to be lining up somewhere in Ulster's loose forward trio when Jono Gibbes' side meet Glasgow at Kingspan Stadium (6:05pm kick-off).
The fixture was to be originally played back in February before the so-called "Beast From the East" intervened and as such will be one of just two Guinness PRO14 fixtures over the weekend.
Of all the sides in domestic, rather than European, action, the northern province's need is by far the greatest.
Sat fourth in Conference B, this is their game in hand over Edinburgh and they could get the gap to the Scots in the final play-off spot down to as little as four points with a big win.
With one full round of fixtures remaining, that would leave plenty hanging on Ulster's trip to Limerick to face Munster next Saturday.
Aside from play-off aspirations, Champions Cup qualification hopes are on the line too, with one more win all but securing at the very least a play-off game against Ospreys in Belfast the weekend of May 18/19/20.
While there is clearly plenty at stake, Deysel believes the side are primed for the challenge.
"This is a building of a couple of good training weeks. We have a little bit of momentum and hopefully we carry that into Glasgow," he said.
"We've been working really hard on and off the field.
"We're pulling together as a team and that really helps us implement our training during matches. Glasgow will be a tough one but we're looking forward to the challenge, we want to put on a show for the fans."
And while all eyes are on this weekend, Deysel admits he is also looking forward to next week's Thomond Park return.
Having spent the majority of his career with the Sharks in his homeland, he enjoyed his brief spell in Limerick at the end of last season.
Unable to stay with Munster, but taken with Irish Rugby, when Arno Botha's proposed move to Ulster fell through, he took the chance to make the short move north.
"It's definitely one of the top stadiums to play at," he said. "I really enjoyed it there.
"It'll be mixed emotions going back, wearing a different jumper this time.
"But I'm really looking forward to it."
The Ulster Rugby podcast is back! 🎙— Belfast Telegraph Sport (@BelTel_Sport) April 19, 2018
Discussed this week are Ulster's options for a Paddy Jackson replacement, Shane Logan's interview and a play-off for @banbridgerugby & @HinchRFC. 🏉
We also hear from title-winning @MaloneRFC captain Ross Todd! 🙌🏼https://t.co/zkITE8SgDy
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