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Ulster must be at our best to win crucial February fixtures in PRO14, says McFarland


Job done: Jordi Murphy and Ulster team-mates celebrate their victory over Ospreys last season

Job done: Jordi Murphy and Ulster team-mates celebrate their victory over Ospreys last season

�INPHO/Alex Davidson

Job done: Jordi Murphy and Ulster team-mates celebrate their victory over Ospreys last season

There is no such thing as a snow day for Ulster Rugby. The province haven't been in action since seeing off Bath last month to secure a Champions Cup quarter-final spot but return to the field on Saturday as their PRO14 campaign resumes with a trip to Swansea to face the struggling Ospreys (5.15pm kick-off).

While in past years such wintry showers saw them retreat for the all-weather facilities at Jordanstown, it was business as usual at Pirrie Park on Tuesday as the squad prepared for the beginning of what is shaping up to be a key run of fixtures in Conference A.

Head coach Dan McFarland said: "Well, in 15 years at Connacht you knew you had to train outside, you had no other choice. We have to play outside so you might as well train outside.

"We trained outside (on Tuesday) morning fully in horrendous conditions and the skill level, the enthusiasm and the energy was fantastic. They went after each other in a really competitive session."

Currently second behind runaway leaders Leinster, three games in three weeks beginning at the Liberty Stadium could go a long way to consolidating that play-off spot.

With third-placed Cheetahs in Belfast next weekend, and both the South Africans and fourth-placed Glasgow due to face unbeaten Leinster before the end of the month, there is a real chance to put distance between themselves and the chasing pack before another break to allow for the conclusion of the Six Nations.

"Given the nature of the Conference, the way the Cheetahs' fixture list is for the rest of the season and the way Glasgow are playing at the moment, you don't want to be slipping up," said McFarland.

"Leinster are a good chunk ahead of us and if we want to chase them down then we need them to slip up, which doesn't look likely at the moment.

"We're in a hunt for those other two places, and the closest guys to us are the Cheetahs, who get to beat the Kings with a bonus point every week. Then (there's) Glasgow, who had a tough time during the World Cup but are now looking good.

"We're in a position where we have to keep winning.

"We've got to go away to Ospreys, we play our direct rivals who are closest to us in Cheetahs the following week, and then we go away to Treviso, which is notoriously hard. It's going to be really testing."

In McFarland's first year at the helm, his side banked valuable wins during the Six Nations period en route to second spot in their Conference and a subsequent home quarter-final. While, given the shifted calendar thanks to the World Cup, there will be more of the season still to run once international stars return, a repeat would be a huge boost.

"Last year we went to the Ospreys during this period and won what I thought was a really thrilling game," the coach reflected. "We played really well in that game during the Six Nations period and it finished 8-0. That was a hard, hard grind. I don't expect anything less this time.

"Going to the Ospreys this week, who I'm sure have regathered and pulled together as a group, it'll be terrible conditions and I'm sure it's going to be a tough test for us."

Those watching the Ospreys closely this season may need some convincing.

The Welsh region - four-time winners of this competition in the past - have fallen considerably from their once lofty perch and have won just once in 16 league and European games this season. Rooted to the bottom of the Conference, that sole victory came against a Benetton side reduced to 14 men after only 11 minutes back in October.

That game aside, their PRO14 record this season reads nine played, nine lost and just nine tries scored. Furthermore, having already parted ways with Ulster's European Cup-winning hooker Allen Clarke, the disarray at the region was highlighted last month by Welsh captain Alun Wyn Jones, who complained there are "people who aren't being held to account" for the organisation's failings.

McFarland, though, is understandably not getting caught up in such talk.

"I think the most important thing is to recognise that their history (this season), especially given a three-week break, doesn't necessarily correlate with what they'll produce on Saturday night," he said.

"We look at what they are capable of and what their players are capable of. We know they have the players to be a very good team because they have caused a lot of teams a lot of trouble in the not too distant past.

"They have also played well in games for periods without actually putting it together for the whole game, so the psychology is that we know we have to be near our best or at our best to win most games.

"That's how we approach it as a group, we are looking at producing a really good performance."

While Aussie lock Sam Carter remains sidelined, Ulster will have Marty Moore fit after the tight-head missed out against Bath while backs Louis Ludik and Mike Lowry are also in training.

In addition, with Ireland not in action this weekend, Stuart McCloskey, Billy Burns, Jack McGrath and Tom O'Toole have all been returned to the province having been a part of the Six Nations set-up without yet seeing the field.

"They've been away training hard with Ireland and haven't got game minutes, so some of them could do with games," confirmed McFarland. "The very fact they're away with Ireland proves they're good players, so they'll be involved at some level this week."

Belfast Telegraph