RaboDirect Pro12: McLaughlin banks on Ulster's returning stars
A stunned Brian McLaughlin’s words after seeing his team crash to a 23-12 home defeat to Benetton Treviso said it all.
“It will be good to get some players back,” the Ulster coach admitted in the wake of the province’s first ever defeat by Italian opponents, ending a run which had seen the hosts unbeaten at Ravenhill in 2011.
Wins in the first three matches of the inaugural RaboDirect Pro12 gave way to a hat-trick of losses, as a result of which Ulster have dropped from second to eighth in the table.
Right now they are in urgent need of a win to halt their descent.
The chance to bank one comes against Scarlets who provide the challenge next Saturday afternoon in Llanelli. Having won twice to date in the Pro12, currently they lie ninth, one point shy of McLaughlin’s side.
But, unlike Ulster, their recent form has been good — witness a 33-17 Parc y Scarlets win over Edinburgh in their last outing in the RaboDirect-sponsored series followed by a 31-3 rout of Leicester Tigers in the LV Cup.
So, against Ulster, they will line out full of confidence.
Certainly the mood within their camp cannot but have been boosted by Wales’ World Cup heroics in which seven of their players — Rhys Priestland, George North, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Stephen Jones, Ken Owens and Tavis Knoyle — have been involved.
And of course, but for injury, Matthew Rees would have led Wales in New Zealand. Unfortunately for the Lions hooker a neck injury which required summer surgery cost him his place.
Significantly, however, having now recovered from the problem which saw him miss the showpiece, he has targeted October 29 as his comeback date for Scarlets.
With Ulster badly needing to steady the ship following those three successive defeats, McLaughlin (pictured) was delighted to welcome South African pair Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar and Scotland’s Simon Danielli when they reported back for duty this week after their World Cup exploits.
The Irish quintet — Rory Best, Tom Court, Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace — are due at Newforge on Tuesday and although not all eight of those now back from the Land of the Long White Cloud will be available to face Scarlets next Saturday afternoon, sufficient of them should be to make a difference.
The hosts will be without those who have shone in the scarlet of Wales, so this is as good a time as any to be facing them.
Ulster have only that Parc y Scarlets match and a November 5 meeting with Connacht at Ravenhill to hone things ahead of their back-to-back Heineken Cup clashes with ASM Clermont Auvergne in Belfast and Leicester Tigers at Welford Road on November 12 and 19 respectively.
So that fact — coupled with the barb of three successive Pro12 defeats and the knowledge that Connacht, Munster and Leinster have already lowered the flag this season — should motivate them.
But whether or not in-coming All Black John Afoa will be involved prior to the Heineken Cup remains to be seen.
With New Zealand having gone all the way to the World Cup final in which they play France at Eden Park on Sunday morning (9.00), Ulster’s new tighthead is going to have very little time to settle into his new workplace ahead of that Clermont match three weeks hence.