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Ulster must be smart to ruin Clarke's big return, says Jono Gibbes

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Few visiting coaches will ever be more familiar with the surrounds of Kingspan Stadium than the Ospreys' Allen Clarke this Friday night.

The European Cup-winning hooker and long-time coach of Ulster will be in the opposing box this week when the Welsh side come to Belfast (7.35pm kick-off) boasting inside knowledge on their hosts.

Current Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes joked yesterday: "I asked the question, 'Who worked with Allen Clarke as a player coming through the system?' and Rory Best stuck his hand up so there's a guy who has had some longevity in this organisation.

"He knows the players, especially the forwards, so he'll know what he needs to do and it's a unique game for our forwards. They will have a hell of a lot of intel and inside knowledge and it's up to our guys to make sure they rise up to the challenge."

The Swansea outfit struggled to start this year, battling with Zebre at the basement of the PRO14's Conference A, but after Steve Tandy's departure following the pool stages of the Champions Cup, Clarke's promotion from forwards coach to interim head coach coincided with an upturn in fortunes.

Indeed, the side that will face Ulster this weekend have won four straight games, with victories over both Leinster and Connacht included.

Having revitalised Ospreys' hopes of qualifying for Europe's top tier next season - at present they would face another trip to Ulster for a one-game play-off - Clarke has brought consistency to the Liberty Stadium outfit according to Gibbes.

"Speaking to Niall (Malone, Ulster's analyst), he knows what sort of things that Clarkey looks for and what he puts emphasis on. So Niall has given me good insights," said Gibbes.

"I wouldn't say it's over-complicated, it's just to become a little bit more efficient and accurate and some of that basic stuff.

"The Ospreys have been a little bit more consistent to put themselves into a position to win games. They have had a few tight ones, but they've come out on the right side of that, and he has possibly brought a tighter focus on things.

"They started off pretty slowly at the start of the year and have had a real change of fortunes in the back half.

"They have got a bit of momentum, Connacht went there with a lot to play for and got made to look pretty average. That is a real tip to the hat to Ospreys."

Consistency, of course, has been absent for his own side for much of this season and, after their somewhat surprising win over Edinburgh last weekend, Friday night will see Ulster look to claim back-to-back wins for the first time since seeing off Harlequins in a December double-header.

Gibbes, who had a chance to join Ospreys in the latter part of his playing career, knows that finally claiming an away victory last time out will mean little if it's not repeated back in Belfast.

While play-off hopes remain slim with Edinburgh eight points ahead, Benetton cannot be counted out of fighting back to pip Ulster into fourth place and the Champions Cup play-off.

"It was satisfying to see the work that was put in transferred onto the field and there was a good buzz after the game because they put a lot into getting a result," he said.

"To keep giving ourselves an opportunity to get through to the last round-robin and have something to play for, it's important we back it up.

"For the players they understand what they consistently need to do to benefit and enjoy that reward afterwards, so they are keen to back that up.

"The first two training sessions have been really good. There has been good energy again and everyone in the squad has done a great job and there is a bit of a buzz.

"The door is not completely shut (on the play-offs) but we have to keep putting pressure on Edinburgh as best we can and that starts with fronting up against Ospreys."

Apart from the result, the most encouraging aspect of Ulster's Murrayfield win was the performance of the younger members in the pack. Ireland U20s tight-head Tom O'Toole impressed on debut, while lock Matt Dalton was making his first start behind him.

Knowing the importance of the Academy in the hopes of restoring the struggling side to former glories, Gibbes was heartened by the pair's showing.

"Tom in particular showed what massive potential he has got. Around the field his attitude with the ball, without the ball was top notch," he said.

"Matt Dalton is a big guy and there are not a lot of big people walking around Ulster playing rugby, so to get someone of that size, it is hugely important. But he has got work to do and that is what you expect.

"The more involved he is in the professional set-up moving forward, working alongside Iain Henderson and Alan O'Connor, he is just going to rapidly improve.

"He has had a good year with the Academy guys, they have done a good job with him, he has more than just a simple taste, he has had a few involvements with us and I think he knows where he has got to go."

Wiehahn Herbst may require knee surgery likely ending his season, while Rob Lyttle is out with a hamstring injury. There is doubt over Louis Ludik after a blow to his back last time out, but other than those three, long-term absentees Jared Payne and Marcell Coetzee, and the three subject to an internal review, the rest of the squad are available.

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