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Chris Henry: Why Ulster must make a big statement in crunch Edinburgh showdown

Ulster tighthead prop Marty Moore
Ulster tighthead prop Marty Moore
John Barclay
Chris Henry

By Chris Henry

No matter what level you're playing at, you won't win a game away from home without a scrum and lineout, that's the long and short of it.

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Ulster didn't have either against Glasgow last Friday and need to rediscover these core principles of the game in time for this week's potentially defining match against Edinburgh at Murrayfield.

Jonny Gray is one of the best in the business when it comes to line-out defence but seven turnovers lost on your own throw tells its own story.

Hindsight is 20:20 but Ulster's props had given their all against Leinster a week prior and the effort in the Aviva will have taken more from their legs than anyone else.

Perhaps those five scrum penalties were the product of some fatigue from Marty Moore and Eric O'Sullivan, who have both been relied upon heavily throughout this season and especially so over the past few months.

Last week's trip to Scotland was always likely to be something of a struggle in terms of the emotion.

Glasgow were naturally looking to make a statement after being thumped by Saracens while Ulster will have been drained by coming so close and falling short against Leinster. The result was a fairly flat performance, especially once the hosts weathered the early storm.

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This week, I'm sure we'll see more of a big-game feel to things with both sides knowing their hopes for silverware this season will hinge on these 80 minutes.

Edinburgh are a changed team the last few years, there's no doubt about that.

For long periods of my Ulster career the feeling was always that no matter how a game was going, come the final whistle we'd be able to grind away and get the job done.

There's a real edge to them now and they've got a fantastic forward pack. It's been the Hamish Watson show for the last few games and he's a player who, while always talented, seems to have taken his performances to new levels of late. For an openside of his size to make the impact he does carrying the ball really is something. He's not alone in that regard either, with Bill Mata proving to be one of the players of the season. His offloading game is worth the ticket price alone and it's something Ulster must be wary of.

Along with John Barclay providing plenty of experience and nous, the back-row battle really is going to be explosive on Friday. But again, it all comes back to that platform. Edinburgh may not have quite the same firepower behind the pack as Glasgow but Ulster will get nowhere this week, and indeed this season, if they can't get their set-piece fully functioning again.

If this weekend's game at Murrayfield feels as if it'll go a long way to deciding how the conference table looks come the end of the season, the team that nobody will want to play come the play-offs will be Benetton. The Italians were horribly unlucky not to get a second straight win in Dublin - Ulster know all too well how hard those are to come by - and are one of the form teams in a league that's throwing up plenty of interesting plot-lines to follow in the final weekends.

With Scarlets not out of the mix yet either, there are nine teams still in the running and that's great for the league. In years gone by at this stage of the season there'd always be a real danger that the top four and the rest were set apart and it was a case of playing out the string until the knockout games arrived.

As it is, there'll be a good side or two left watching on as the serious business begins next month... let's just hope Ulster aren't one of them.

Darren Cave will leave big void in the team when he retires

I'm not sure I ever played with anyone who lived and breathed Ulster Rugby the way that Darren Cave does.

That jersey means so much to him and when he retires at the end of the season he'll be missed on and off the field.

If not for Brian O'Driscoll he'd have plenty more Irish caps but it's been an incredible career nonetheless. Yes, he was always a player who could score you a try but it'll always be his qualities without the ball that stand out for me. Defending at the hardest position on the pitch, it's hard to remember him missing a tackle.

Last Saturday at the Aviva showed the qualities Cave still has, and I'm sure he could have chosen to play abroad, but I think he's already looking forward to the next chapter. It'll be good to have him in our past players WhatsApp group at any rate.

As ever, pro rugby moves on quickly and as Darren prepares for his exit, Jack McGrath gets ready to arrive. In the Ireland camp, Jack has always got on well with the Ulster boys and I'm sure that made the decision easier, but what a statement for the province that he wants to come up and be involved in what's being built.

Sevens Series gives players great chance to gain experience

What an achievement it is for Ireland to have made it into next year's HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series.

It'll be an unbelievable experience for those players to be a part of it. Furthermore, it'll grow that form of the game in this part of the world immeasurably and it's crucial to have as many access points as possible. We've seen the likes of Nick Timoney and Robert Baloucoune benefit in recent seasons, while Iwan Hughes is the latest member of the Ulster Academy to get a taste for it.

Watching over the weekend, it took me back to my sevens days at the very start of my career.

The side then was used to give some fringe players at the provinces game time but we ended up qualifying for the 2009 World Cup.

Myself, Darren Cave, Felix Jones, Ian Keatley and James Coughlan were all involved in a qualifying competition that took us to places like Hannover, Gdansk and Odense.

I'd make my Ulster debut before the World Cup in Dubai so didn't get to go out...I've never been so delighted and devastated at the same time before.

It's obviously a game that helps massively with conditioning, but also skills like passing and fends too.

It'll be fantastic to see Ireland up against the very best next year.

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