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Power-packed Ulster must seize Champions Cup initiative, demands Gibbes


By Jonathan Bradley

As a former All Black, and a coach who forged his reputation by getting the best out of the forward packs at Leinster and Clermont, Jono Gibbes seemed more irked than most when Ulster's basics deserted them in Newport two weeks ago.

With discipline and their set-piece missing in action, Ulster threw away a 12-point lead and were only able to settle for a draw thanks to a last-gasp Christian Leali'ifano try.

It was much to the chagrin of their head coach, who in the post-match media session blasted that in rugby "there are some basic principles you still need to respect".

Fast-forward nine days, though, and in the snow at Twickenham Stoop, his pack produced their best display of the season to beat Harlequins.

Ably led by Iain Henderson, and overcoming the late loss of captain Rory Best, the Ulster eight rolled up their sleeves and toiled, setting the foundation for the 17-5 win that has the province well placed for the runners-up spot in Champions Cup Pool 1 if they can repeat the dose against the same opposition back at Kingspan Stadium tonight (7.45pm kick-off).

"Well I think first of all, credit goes to the players," said Gibbes of what was a stark improvement on the past two months.

"Their influence on that game, on that performance, they put a hell of a lot of work into that week. They put a hell of a lot of work into the last three weeks, post-Kings.

"And a lot of what we have been trying to build showed up against Harlequins. I think the occasion brought that out, European game against English team away from home, there was a degree of that.

"The conditions helped too, allowed us to get stuck into them a bit more as well as a mix of the players' frustration and their efforts. Frustration from the last few performances, and the efforts to really roll their sleeves up. For 80 minutes, it was a good effort."

Important for Gibbes was some of the unheralded work done by his tight-five.

"Individually I think Callum Black, Rob Herring, those are great performances," he said.

"You have to look really hard to see a lot of what Callum was doing, but he was having good influences. Wiehahn Herbst came back from injury and that was a good shift, (Alan) O'Connor and Treaders (Kieran Treadwell) too."

While the fourth weekend of Europe, the last this side of Christmas, tends to give a much clearer picture of the quarter-final projections, Gibbes won't be forensically analysing the impact of other results.

Rather than give too much thought to where his side stand come Sunday evening, he just wants to see more evidence of character and determination.

"We are not too worried about the quarter-final ramifications," he said. "We are putting pressure on ourselves to front up because that's what we have been trying to put together.

"The performances, the teamwork, we showed it last week, glimpses of it."

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