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Pressure can be spur for Ulster: Louis Ludik

 

By Jonathan Bradley

With their results under such scrutiny over recent months, the pressure of so-called must-win games is nothing new for Ulster of late, but there is no wiggle room for the struggling province this evening.

Taking on Edinburgh in the cavernous surrounds of BT Murrayfield (7.35pm kick-off), the equation is simple for the visitors - lose and they spend a second consecutive season outside of the Guinness PRO14 play-offs.

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While even a win would leave them with plenty still to do if they were to claim a place in the expanded end-of-season format, defeat dooms their hopes and would raise even further doubts over their participation in next season's Champions Cup too.

With so much at stake over the final month and four games of a best-forgotten campaign, pressure was high around Kingspan Stadium this week, with Louis Ludik believing his team-mates must use the desperation of their situation to their advantage in the Scottish capital.

It hasn't been the happiest of hunting grounds in recent seasons, and indeed was the venue for one of their worst performances of the last campaign, but the South African knows there is little choice but to raise their game this time around.

"Sometimes when a person is really under pressure, they perform," said the 31-year-old

"Maybe it's how the human brain works, when you're really under the pump that's when you really have to focus. When your job is on the line and you really have to perform, it can be a way to get the best out of yourself and the team. For us, it's must-wins, every week is a final now.

"Sometimes when our backs are against the wall, when we've no other choice, that's when we play our best. Our minds have to go to that place where we play as best we can. Murrayfield is a big empty stadium, not like a packed Kingspan with its nice atmosphere. We're going to go out there and really be focused on our game and really take it to them.

"Whoever gets the opportunity to go out and play has to take that opportunity and do their best for the province and for the squad."

Recently described by Operations Director Bryn Cunningham as a player who would be among the first names on his team-sheet, Ludik is something of a rarity in the current Ulster set-up as a player in his thirties still being awarded regular game-time.

A whole host of long-serving and distinguished players - including Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave and Chris Henry - have been limited in their appearances of late as departing head coach Jono Gibbes puts his faith in less experienced squad members, As such, Ludik is one of only a handful who can call upon a career's worth of similar situations.

"After 12 years, I've had my fair share of pressure, it's part of rugby. I enjoy it, that's why you play professional rugby. It'd be nice to win every weekend and be pressure free but all we can focus on is on the field, all we can focus on is each gym session, each training session,each meal and take that onto the field.

"If the ball doesn't' bounce our way, then there's nothing we can do about that, but whatever we can control ourselves, that's what we need to control and take advantage of."

Having been on the bench last time out in Cardiff, Ludik is restored to the team this evening as Ulster look to win away from home in the league for a first time since the start of November. While the side have altered their schedule in an effort to cure their travel sickness - they flew to Edinburgh yesterday and will stay tonight - Gibbes has made further changes to his starting side, including naming Irish under-20s tight-head Tom O'Toole for a debut in the number three jersey.

Alongside Rory Best in the scrum, who is back for a first time since captaining Ireland to a Grand Slam in the Six Nations, O'Toole is selected after impressing for both under-age representative sides and the Ulster 'A' team this season.

A Drogheda native, his family moved to Australia when he was just six years old.

O'Toole returned a decade later after contact was made by the IRFU and earned a place in the Ulster Academy after his displays for Campbell College in the Danske Bank Schools' Cup during 2016.

And two more debuts could follow from the bench. Tommy O'Hagan of Rainey, who came to rugby in his teens having originally played Gaelic games for his local club Swatragh, has been named as the loosehead backing up Andy Warwick.

O'Hagan, who is 24 years old, is another with extensive experience in the 'A' side after two successful seasons in the British and Irish Cup and could have made his debut even sooner had a game with Glasgow not been postponed in early March.

Angus Curtis is also among the replacements. The centre-cum-flyhalf is the son of former Ireland centre David Curtis, who won his 13 caps in the early 1990s, while his younger brother Graham is a scrum-half in the Academy. Born in Zimbabwe but educated in South Africa, he has been playing with Queen's for two seasons.

Much like last time out against Cardiff, this fixture sees two sides with radically different confidence levels going head to head. Although losing last week, Edinburgh are on a real roll under Richard Cockerill and, despite the return of Rory Best to skipper the side, there is little to suggest that Ulster will be the team to knock them off track.

Belfast Telegraph

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