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Ulster coach Allen Clarke believes the only way is up

By Jonathan Bradley

Despite last Saturday's defeat to Leinster at the RDS seeing Ulster fall to fifth in the PRO12 standings, forwards coach Allen Clarke says the side are still targeting a top two finish.

Given their poor away form, it is perhaps no surprise that Ulster covet the home semi-final that is the reward for finishing first or second come season's end, but Clarke feels that, even after an indifferent run of form, both the remaining fixtures and an easing of the injury crisis offer grounds for optimism.

Speaking ahead of Sunday's trip to face Treviso, he said: "I think this weekend's game is really important to us.

"It won't define our final position of the season but it will go a long way to establishing us in the top four. Over the next period, we have a run of games that we'd expect, and we've set ourselves a target of accruing, a certain amount of points.

"During that period Ospreys, Leinster, Glasgow and Munster all play each other. We've been to Munster, we've been to Ospreys and played them at home, we've had Glasgow here and we've been to Leinster.

"Those teams have got to come to us now. The only team above us that we have to go to is Glasgow.

"That's at the back end of the season. It's a tough run in our last three league games but two of them are at home and we've got to ensure that we're in a position that we're going into those games competing for one of the top two positions."

With the possibility that Jared Payne could be involved on Sunday, another senior player edges ever closer to a return but the likes of Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble, Iain Henderson and Nick Williams remain on the sidelines.

"I think we haven't made a big thing about it, it's only been documented recently in terms of our injury profile," said the 1999 Heineken Cup-winning hooker.

"Chris is a senior player within the group, an international player, you add him to Nick Williams who has been missing for quite a bit of the season, Iain Henderson who has been missing and it's been significant in terms of our back-row.

"We're asking a lot of the same players to go out on a weekly basis and that takes its toll.

"It provides an opportunity for guys who maybe didn't think they were going to get as much game-time, the likes of Clive Ross and Sean Reidy.

"The investment in them and the improvement in them has been significant, but you're trying to catch up on 10 years of experience.

"Chris is a seasoned professional rugby player. This time last year Sean and Clive were playing club footy, one in New Zealand and one in Ireland.

"It's a big ask but those guys are making improvements and I've no doubt that the investment will be seen down the track.

"Every day the likes of an Andrew Trimble, an Iain Henderson, a Jared Payne, a Nick Williams, a Chris Henry, is getting closer to returning to play.

"As long as we're close in terms of those semi-final positions, that provides you with optimism about the team that we can put out during the business end of the season."

While things haven't gone to plan in recent games - Ulster have two wins from their last six in all competitions - one area that has been encouraging has been the set-piece.

On the work of his forward unit, the eight-times capped Irish international said: "I have to say the forwards have taken tremendous ownership, work-ethic and focus to the scrum and the lineout (both) with and without the ball. In this period of games our outcomes have been good (but) it's not just about ball winning it's the quality of that ball.

"It's a multi-dimensional game and outside the set-piece we have to be better in our phase play, both in attack and defence, in terms of our continuity and our accuracy of passing and catching to ensure that we're nailing those opportunities that we're creating."

Trips to northern Italy are often a test of any PRO12 pack but Clarke has stressed the need for a positive result before they resume their seemingly doomed European campaign next weekend.

"It's good for the league that teams are taking points off each other but it's critically important that we're taking the points this weekend," said the former Dungannon star.

"We're under no illusions of the respect that we need to give Treviso but we've also got to back ourselves.

"We've got to be mentally switched on but I've no doubt we will be because the player group realise how important this weekend is."

Belfast Telegraph


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