Ulster 'A' can go all way in Cup, says Willie
It's a rare thing indeed that Ulster 'A' and the British and Irish Cup gets much in the way of attention alongside the European Champions Cup but, then, these are changed times.
So the 'A' team have the stage and this Saturday represents a key moment for the often unheralded squad as they travel to Jersey Reds (kick-off 2.00pm) with both sides locked in a shoot-out to top Pool One - Ulster are on 19 points with the Reds one behind - with the prize for the winners being a much valued home quarter-final.
Indeed, making the last eight for the first time since 2012 also looks achievable for head coach Kieran Campbell's squad even in defeat as they appear good to go through as one of three best runners-up. Though should this situation come to pass, hitting the road to make the semi-finals is definitely not the preferred outcome.
Ulster will be going all out to win against a side who are eighth in the English Championship in what 'A' team assistant coach Willie Anderson rightly points out will be an intimidating atmosphere at the Reds' home ground.
"They will have a big pack and an intimidating crowd but we've got good players as well so we're not intending to get bullied," said the former Ulster and Ireland player who was never known to step away from a challenge in his playing days.
"Our intention is to go there and perform and, of course, win the match."
The situation where Ulster get through as a best runner-up doesn't really interest Anderson who has been brought on board at Ulster this season and whose mantra is to create a culture where the players perform for the jersey.
"We have a job to do and we want to earn the right to go through and hopefully we can get that victory as it would be fantastic to be back here at home," he stated.
"There's no way we're going there to roll over and we just won't be doing that."
Last Friday's 38-21 bonus point victory over London Scottish will have hugely boosted confidence with senior players Darren Cave, who scored twice, Craig Gilroy, Robbie Diack and Ricky Lutton all togging out.
Though it is not entirely clear how many senior players will be in the 'A' squad for the trip to Jersey - lock Alan O'Connor is believed to be returning to action - there is much optimism over the growing confidence which has been seen in fringe and emerging squad members such as Conor Joyce, Lorcan Dow and Tommy O'Hagan, as well as with Johnny McPhillips, during the course of the competition.
Another useful psychological advantage to deploy will be the fact that the 'A' side - with Tommy Bowe and the now Bristol-based Dan Tuohy on board - defeated an admittedly weakened Reds 19-6 back in the first round of games held in October which happens to be the only time the islanders have been defeated in the pool stages.
Anderson, though, makes it known that Ulster will be trying to keep the ball alive as much as possible to move the heavier Jersey pack around the paddock and, with further injury issues believed to be the case concerning props, to ensure that the visitors avoid being dragged into a set-piece battle.
"We have to certainly use the talent that we have in terms of our backline and keep the ball on the move," he pointed out.
"We know we have to play fairly smart and we don't kick for touch, we kick long and we move their pack around.
"If we can stay in touch for the last 20 minutes and be ahead we can hopefully wrap it up.
"It really depends on us performing up until that point and that's key."