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There's now little margin for error in PRO14's race to reach Champions Cup: Ludik

Going over: Ulster ace Louis Ludik bags a try against Benetton at Kingspan Stadium in January
Going over: Ulster ace Louis Ludik bags a try against Benetton at Kingspan Stadium in January

By Jonathan Bradley

Those suffering fatigue over conversations about Europe will get no respite when it comes to the Guinness PRO14.

With Leinster the odds-on favourites to retain their crown and, much to the continued chagrin of some observers, no prospect of relegation, just who will be taking the league's seven Champions Cup spots next season remains a huge source of intrigue.

After tomorrow's hosting of Zebre (7.35pm, Kingspan Stadium), Ulster will have only five league games spread over the remaining nine weeks. Leinster's dominance is ensuring that their northern neighbours, Benetton, Edinburgh and Scarlets are all fighting over just two automatic spots.

While there remains the second chance of the end-of-season play-off - in which Ulster beat Ospreys last season - one of that quartet at least will be consigned to Challenge Cup rugby next term.

Such meritocracy was not always the way of the cross-border competition, while in the eyes of Louis Ludik increased strength in depth throughout the league has created what looks like a bottleneck.

"Absolutely massive," said the South African of the improvements made since his own arrival in 2014.

"If you look at Treviso, when I got here they were at the bottom most of the time but now they're second or third, they're looking really good and have changed a lot over the last couple of years.

"There are teams now that have really improved and it's great for the league. It improves the standard, so it's great to see.

"There are definitely a couple of teams that have stepped up and are playing some really good rugby, which makes it tough, but it's very, very good."

Testament to that is Ulster's results this season.

Their situation remains precarious yet, discounting the collection of bonus points, the only league games when they have delivered an outcome less than what was expected of them came with October's loss to Connacht in Belfast and the draw with Benetton when they last played at Kingspan Stadium.

Margins have never been so fine in this competition, with Ludik and his team-mates aware that any slip-up tomorrow would be the kind cited ad nauseam come May if things were not to go their way in the final standings.

"Against Treviso, after the European win away to Leicester, that was massive for us but we stepped into that trap," said the South African. "It's times like that you have to learn from and know that when you play in these games it's never easy, especially against teams who have really improved and throw the ball around.

"If you switch off for one second they can score a 100m try easily, and they have some great athletes and we have to stay focused and be ready for what's to come.

"These days it's not an easy game, we have to pitch up on the day otherwise it could be the same as Treviso when we shot ourselves in the foot, so we have to be focused."

In an inexperienced panel, tomorrow is the type of game for calmer heads, something Ludik can add - especially in the absence of Ireland stars preparing for a different Italian challenge.

He is one of only three players in the squad to have seen their 31st birthday - the others being Rory Best and Darren Cave - but is enjoying being pushed by the younger men.

Given his versatility, the former Shark can play full-back, wing and centre well, positions that have been boosted by the emergence of Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume and Angus Kernohan in the last six months alone.

"It's absolutely brilliant," he said, as enthusiastic as ever.

"They have really taken their chances and they're playing great rugby so it's really good to see.

"They are putting their hands up and it's always good to be putting the older guys under pressure.

"It's really good for Ulster and pleasant for the coaches as well, they gave them the chance and now get to see them playing great rugby. It's very healthy for Ulster."

If the Champions Cup outlook is to remain the same, nothing less than a win tomorrow night will do.

Belfast Telegraph

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