Top four league finish is target for McLaughlin
Brian McLaughlin knows the end of his first season as Ulster’s head coach is fast approaching.
He knows, too, that his side’s solitary remaining target at this stage is a place in the top four in the Magners League, the hope being to ensure on-going inclusion beyond the May 9 completion of the 18-match programme.
A top four place, the Holy Grail of English Premiership soccer, has become the goal in the Magners League, too.
In that competition, Ulster face eight more fixtures, the first of them tonight when they host Newport Gwent Dragons.
The others are home dates with Ospreys, Cardiff Blues and Connacht and trips to Scarlets, Cardiff, Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh.
That’s a lot of points to be won or lost, a point not lost on McLaughlin.
His boldly-stated target is four home wins and as many points as can be gleaned from two trips to Wales and two more to Scotland.
Currently Ulster have 23 points, which leaves them with a great deal to do if they are to claim fourth spot or better.
Under the 18-match format which began in 2007/08, the lowest points for a team finishing fourth was Edinburgh’s 48 in the inaugural season. They won nine and drew three of their matches.
When Ospreys came fourth in 2008/09, it was as a result of having amassed 52 points, their record having been 11 wins augmented by eight bonuses.
So, 48 points is the lowest tally to date for a team finishing fourth in the Magners League — 25 more than Ulster boast currently.
To date in the campaign Ulster have chalked up three home wins and two on the road, a total of five. Much work to be done, then.
Looking forward to tonight’s Ravenhill showdown McLaughlin said: “It's a vital game for us. The Dragons are sitting on the same points as us in the league, so it's a game that we must win.”
His captain Chris Henry shares the coach’s opinion as to the importance of the occasion. He knows that if Ulster are to give themselves a chance of qualifying for the play-off stages, realistically they have to win against the Dragons tonight.
He also knows that if they are to do that, they will have to work for it. The Welsh are coming to Belfast intent on completing a double over opponents they have already beaten comprehensively and, by so doing, leapfrogging Ulster in the scramble for fourth place.
“They’re going to be coming here to play, make no mistake,” the Ulster captain forecast.
“They had the better of us on their patch at the start of the year. We didn’t play well and they were more physical.
“They won the battle at the breakdown and they played the game smarter. So we know this is going to be a big challenge.
“Against that, we have improved since September when we lost at Rodney Parade and if we can win our setpieces well, get that intensity, the no-fear attitude that we had in Bath, go for the tries and throw the ball about, then we are very capable of winning this.
“We are, without a doubt, a much better side than we were back in September. We feel we have moved forward.
“Now it’s time to front up.”