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Assistant Malone has praise for Ulster's strength in depth as Piutau and Olding return

By Jonathan Bradley

Ulster assistant Niall Malone believes the side have developed the strength in depth to survive the Six Nations window without their Irish stars.

While the Kingspan outfit look set to be battling fourth-placed Scarlets for the final play-off spot for the remainder of this campaign, one year ago it was defeats to the Llanelli outfit, as well as their Welsh neighbours Cardiff, during the Championship that left the province scrambling for a place in the top four rather than targeting a home semi-final.

Twelve months before, it was a similar story when the province suffered a reverse at Rodney Parade at the hands of Newport Gwent Dragons.

Ulster will again be without Irish frontliners Rory Best, Paddy Jackson, Iain Henderson and Andrew Trimble when they travel to Zebre on Sunday (12.30pm kick-off), but Malone says they will still be able to field a strong team in Parma.

The first of three contests against Italian sides between now and the end of the Six Nations, the province have a real opportunity to narrow or even overhaul the gap between themselves and the all-important top four.

"We just feel we have a really strong team," said former out-half Malone.

"It feels like that this week in training, even though we are missing Besty, Hendy and Jacko in particular.

"You look at what Glasgow were missing last week, and they suffered for it.

"We think we are as good as ever. Just as an example, yes Rory is so good for us at hooker, but John Andrew has been fantastic, as is Rob Herring when back to full fitness.

"So we don't feel we have a weak team during the Six Nations."

And their teamsheet will be strengthened further from last week by the return to fitness of star man Charles Piutau.

The All Black missed the bonus-point win over Glasgow with a leg injury but has trained fully this week, as has centre Stuart Olding.

Full-back Louis Ludik and hooker John Andrew are undergoing the return to play protocols but Darren Cave will now not be seen until the game against Dragons next month.

After initially hoping that Stuart McCloskey would miss just one week with a calf problem, the centre now looks set for a couple of weeks on the sidelines.

Regardless of personnel, Ulster will be expected to win comfortably against the league's bottom side, but at a ground where the province lost just two seasons ago, Malone warned that matters won't be as easy as those outside the camp seem to believe.

"We have had poor results over there," he recalled.

"We lost (in 2014) when Declan Fitzpatrick got a red card and we've had a narrow victory there, so it hasn't been the best away fixture for us.

"Last year we did get a bonus point and played well, and the expectation from others is that we'll have an easy win this week.

"We aren't going in thinking it's an easy win for us.

"We are playing the bottom of the table team but they have caused us problems before, so we need to focus on ourselves this week.

"If we play to what we are capable of, it will be fine, but if we lower our performance, we will be in trouble."

With Scarlets facing Munster tomorrow and Leinster a week later, the next three weeks will be key to the season, with Malone sensing the team are entering the stretch with real momentum after back-to-back bonus-point wins.

"It's a good position to be in because we've come off the back of two bonus-point wins and we have the potential of more bonus points," he said.

"The league is getting to the point where the bonus point is going to be vital. There is pressure and expectation with different reasons, these next two weeks will be an expectation as people perceive that we are going to have easy wins.

"We want to build on the good performances and hopefully have a good performance and lead to a good win."

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