Come Sunday evening, three of Ulster’s last five European games will have pitted them against Northampton Saints.
While such quirks of the draw are nothing new to the province – they played Toulouse twice in two different seasons just three months apart in the autumn and winter of 2021, while they’ve met Harlequins no fewer than five times in the past five campaigns — there are plenty of sides in their own league that they see with far less frequency than the English giants.
At least, for their sake, they have been getting the better of the recent meetings. While the previous six games in the Champions Cup have been split evenly three apiece, with Saints claiming the biggest win in the 2011 quarter-final, Ulster won the reverse fixture last month as well as the Challenge Cup quarter-final at Franklin’s Gardens last spring.
Rather than think they have unearthed some sort of blue-print to beat the green, black and gold which can be relied upon on Sunday, though, the 1999 champions will instead spend their training week in Belfast focussing on avoiding a repeat performance of last weekend’s momentum-sapping loss in Munster.
Up against hosts who played with 14 men for 65 minutes, Ulster ultimately fell by a score of 18-13 having produced only six points during the long period with a numerical advantage.
The side’s attack coach Dan Soper noted that their usually high passing stats — indeed, no team in this season’s Champions Cup has passed the ball more — took a real dip in Limerick as they opted to kick or take contact with the overall effect a drop in the tempo that so troubled Leinster and Clermont on their own patches at the end of last year.
It is, as Soper says, getting their own house in order that will be drawing the lion’s share of time this week.
“There are parts that are a bit different this week,” he said of the approach adopted last month and last April against the same opposition.
“But we have looked to the last game, how we prepped for the last game. We’ve looked at Northampton who are an excellent team and we’ve looked at the trends in how they play and things that we think might have changed since the last time we played them. So we may make some small tweaks.
“But I think it’s also really important that we get our own house in order, particularly off the back of the weekend when we didn’t perform anywhere near the standard that we would have wanted to.
“Of course we look at Saints, but we looked at them not that long ago, so this week there is a real focus on ourselves so my part in that is to try and add layers and keep improving what it is that we do, the things that are our game and try and get better in our game. That’s the main focus.
“We didn’t shift the ball as much as we have done of late, our passing numbers were well down which gives a bit of an indication as to how we played the game. We’ve a bit there to do.
“The speed that we moved about the park was not at the standard that we would want and particularly when you’re playing a team like Northampton that play at incredible speed, driving our own speed to be up and above theirs is very important. That’s what we’ll be focused on.”
Selection, too, will have to be a focus for the coaches in the days to come.
The province will reveal their selection on Friday afternoon but there are areas of the park where resources are becoming decidedly thin.
With both Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall having ended the year injured, the loss of Stewart Moore for last week’s trip to Munster saw Ulster pitch up at Thomond with only James Hume from their regular quartet of centres.
The Irish international was paired with Academy player Ben Moxham last week but, as luck or lack thereof would have it, he injured his hamstring and Soper described himself as “not particularly hopeful” that his former RBAI star would be fit for the trip.
Should Moore not be available, Ulster could deploy Angus Curtis in the midfield, while two youngsters yet to debut competitively, Jude Postlethwaite and Ben Carson, are both at least registered in the wider EPCR squad.
The situation at scrum-half is at least more straightforward. John Cooney’s prospects were mentioned in the same breath as Hume’s but at least if the talismanic nine can’t go then it can be expected that Nathan Doak can slot in.
The 20-year-old has only four minutes of experience in this competition but has already shown he has the temperament for the big occasion.
A more welcome selection headache, meanwhile, could be provided by the return to fitness of Robert Baloucoune.