In the wake of his side’s hugely impressive win over Leinster last weekend, Dan McFarland likened Ulster’s usually fruitless trip to the RDS as akin to the first bite of his main course.
The side who had ended their starter with a particularly sour taste in the mouth after a considerable bump in the road against Connacht served up one of the best results of their head coach’s near 100-game tenure against the defending champions to draw level on points with them at the top of the URC table.
This weekend’s trip to Ospreys won’t carry quite the same weight as what has gone before or what is set to follow but Saturday’s game in Swansea still offers the opportunity to carry the momentum into a fortnight of key European action.
With a trip to Clermont and the hosting of Northampton Saints this side of Christmas, and the three festive derbies and the reverse Champions Cup clashes to come after that, McFarland won’t shy away from the reality that this is the key chunk of the provincial season.
“(It’s the) meaty part of the season,” he admitted. “Ten games, seven teams, four derbies, four European games, Ospreys away and big Dwayne Peel (now with Scarlets) coming back for the 10th game.
“I said it earlier in the week, if rounds one to five were the starter then this is definitely the main course that’s going to decide the dessert.
“It’s a phenomenally tough schedule and we’re going to be tested in the depth of our squad. The challenge is one that we talked about on Monday and it’s exciting, really exciting. It’s an opportunity for us to make some news, for us to drive as individuals to get recognition and international honours. Everything is there for us.”
At present there is no denying that but the northern province will remember all too well that it was during this same period last season when their campaign endured something of a rocky patch that had a huge influence over the remainder of the year.
As injuries hit hard, losing a game against Toulouse that they perhaps could have won followed by a defeat away to Gloucester in a game they definitely should have won ended their run of consecutive Champions Cup quarter-finals while in the New Year one of two league losses to Leinster essentially left them playing catch-up for the remainder of the season.
For better or worse, Ulster’s season will have taken on a far more definitive shape by the time the squad get their next breather through the opening weeks of the Six Nations.
Silverware obviously remains the ultimate aim. While no trophies are won in the winter, they can certainly be lost. Having ended one long-running hoodoo with that first win in the RDS since 2013 and the days of Mark Anscombe, a title drought that stretches back to 2006 remains the most significant of monkeys on the back.
McFarland, though, doesn’t see it that way.
“We don’t have monkeys on our backs,” he said without missing a beat.
“(Beating Leinster), it’s a big result but on its own it’s four points like any other four points. It’s the ultimate test in our league to come here and the guys did a good job. But I’ve only been here since 2018 so 2013 to 2018 (is irrelevant), we’re focused on what we’re doing. There’s no negative to that but I’m just happy that we won. We won and that’s that done.
“Even the players, they’re enjoying the moment, they’re living in the moment. That’s what it’s about.
“I get it, definitely, that they (the supporters) may feel the history but I can’t afford to do that. This is the sharp end, you have to focus on the here and now.”
And at this time of year, that means a potentially season-defining stretch.