Tyrone Howe: Now’s the time for Ulster’s big men to deliver
So, as we had hoped, we find ourselves in the week leading up to the biggest match of the season so far, with everything to play for. It is the most important 80 minutes of rugby for Ulster in many years.
Last Friday’s win over Treviso provided an excellent opportunity for a dress rehearsal before the crunch Heineken Cup game against Biarritz this Saturday afternoon.
Normal business was resumed with a proper senior selection laying the foundation for an emphatic victory. Not that there wasn’t plenty of room for improvement, but coming through the game having played some decent rugby and emerging unscathed counts as more than satisfactory in terms of preparation for the big one.
Many supporters will have been disappointed by the second-half performance by Ulster against the Italians. Had the game taken place earlier or later in the season, I am confident that Ulster would have hit the 50 point mark.
However, with four tries and a bonus point secured by halftime, the job was done and mentally the players dipped.
Coupled with the raft of expected substitutions, this halted the rhythm and allowed Treviso to impose themselves on the game. You got the feeling that the match was already consigned to history long before it actually finished.
Given the enormity of the challenge of Biarritz, I can’t help but cut the players some slack on this one.
So how big is the challenge? Well, statistics rarely lie. The two teams have met five times before with Ulster's only success so far being in their first ever meeting at Ravenhill in 2002. More recently, Biarritz have won four out of their last six away matches in the Heineken Cup.
Nonetheless, as Clermont showed against Leinster and Toulon against Munster, French sides remain the most unrelaxed of travellers. The challenge for Ulster is to create fissures in the French psyche and ruthlessly capitalise on the cracks of self-doubt.
Video analysis is always vital, and I am certain that Brian McLaughlin will be showing the Ulster players just how well they acquitted themselves in that first-half of the corresponding fixture in the Parc Sport des Aguilera.
Despite the ultimate capitulation, for much of the opening 40 minutes, Ulster dominated the physical exchanges and the breakdown. The big problem was failing to score from the various linebreaks and then losing composure in defence in the second-half.
We can assume that it will be an enormously physical battle once again and all the usual parameters of the setpiece and breakdown will apply, but a number of key aspects stand out for me.
Firstly, discipline is paramount as Ulster have already found out to their cost what a kicking gem Biarritz possess in Dimitri Yachvili.
Secondly, Ulster have to be more efficient than ever at taking their chances, as there was still an element of the speculative to some of their tries against Treviso.
A crossfield kick late in the game against Treviso when the ball simply should have been worked through the hands across the pitch summed up the still worrying feature of “white line fever.”
Thirdly, the little things have to be done well, for example, restarts have to be dealt with cleanly and clinically. Ian Humphreys has been impressive in displaying a new level of consistency, but against Bath his clearance kick was charged down. Quite literally the bounce of the ball was the only thing that saved Ulster from a Bath try. The same almost happened against Treviso. Clearance kicks have to be dealt with in greater haste.
Fourthly, in all likelihood, Biarritz will score a try in the game. Therefore, with that expectation it is vital that Ulster keep cool heads and trust their defensive line and system.
Finally, Ulster’s big players have to turn up and prove their worth more than at any other time this season. After the game we need to be talking in glowing terms about Botha, Muller, Ferris, Pienaar, Wallace and Trimble.
Can Ulster win? Yes. Do I believe that Ulster will win? Yes. Do the players believe they can win? I believe they do.
Saturday afternoon should be another great day in the history of European Cup rugby for Ulster.