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Ulster's European buzz can lead the way to the rarest of surprise wins, insists Payne

 

New mindset: Jared Payne
New mindset: Jared Payne

By Michael Sadlier

Every week is a challenge, every game requiring hard work on and off the field as Ulster players and coaches try to find the required route to winning. And then there is Leinster away.

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Since 1999 there has been just the one victory, whether in regulation season games or knockout rugby in both the league and Europe.

It hardly helps that Ulster go at this time of year with Ireland internationals stood down, and the need to rotate resources paramount, but such is the nature of the festive interprovincial programme.

At least this season Ulster will be travelling south to the RDS Arena for Friday's return to Guinness PRO14 action off the back of some impressive form.

Dan McFarland's charges have lost just twice in 11 games and have put together five straight wins - four of these results having been collected from Europe which has them, as unbeaten leaders of their group, in a strong position to make the quarter-finals for a second year running.

Indeed, they have been victorious in eight of their last nine games when both competitions are taken into account so, in theory, Ulster ought to be feeling that bit better about themselves as they approach this difficult fixture.

But, then again, Leinster are going even better. They have won all 11 matches played this season and they have also cut quite a swathe by already guaranteeing a place for themselves in Europe's last-eight, as well as topping Conference A in the PRO14 where they sit eight points ahead of Ulster, who are in second.

Is it simply a case of anything you can do, we can do better?

Defence coach Jared Payne is certainly not going to buy into what has occurred in the past when discussing Leinster away.

He actually played the only time Ulster have won this century when they held on to triumph 22-18 in March 2013, though Payne ended the game in the bin.

"What will work and be good for us is that there's a good feeling amongst the squad," said Payne.

"There's a bit of a buzz and the guys that come in want to be part of that.

"The guys on the fringes have been pushing other guys in training.

"It will be their time to step into the space at the weekend and hopefully they'll bring a bit of energy, intent and really step up to the mark.

"It'll be good to see where those young guys are at, I'm really looking forward to it."

With Leinster scoring tries for fun in their European back-to-back humblings of Northampton Saints, Ulster's defence will be coming under scrutiny even though Friday's hosts are also not expected to be at full strength.

Ulster's defence has been pretty good in recent games, though this weekend could be, well, quite testing.

"We're going okay," said Payne regarding his area of expertise.

"There were a few sketchy moments at the weekend (against Harlequins) unfortunately, which wasn't ideal, but we scrambled and there was a bit of desire from the boys to not let them cross the line.

"That's pleasing, but there are aspects we've got to improve on if we want to go places."

And focusing on the task at hand - Leinster are first up before home Irish derbies with Connacht and Munster - Payne mentioned the importance of a positive attitude rather than focusing on the record.

"We've got to go down there with a good mindset, and I think if we go down there with a bit of fear and worry, and don't quite put our best foot forward, we're going to lose," he said.

"I'd rather go down there and fire a few shots and throw a few punches, though not literally, in defence and then see if we're up for it."

Mind you, it is hard to avoid the fact that Ulster have issues with beating Leinster on their home turf regardless of which ground they play at.

"That's life," said Payne with a shrug. "You either hide from it or don't talk about it, or just get on with it.

"We realise the challenge, we'll give them the respect but then we'll go down with a bit of a mindset that we want to go after them."

It sounds like a plan, get in Leinster's faces from the off both in attack and defence and then see what happens.

Warming to the defensive structure, he added: "If you get a collective attitude and intent from the guys, all on the same page, doing the same sort of thing, you're going to be in a better place than you are.

"When mistakes do happen, if there's that intent to get back and work hard for each other that's another big thing," Payne stated with more than likely a nod towards John Cooney's try-saving tackle on Ross Chisholm last Friday evening.

"It's the attitude, effort and energy the boys show and then some of our intent to go after teams as well.

"Decision-making. That's how you defend.

"People like to talk about structures and stuff, we give them a frame and they make decisions within that.

"We give them defensive skills they have to use and then try to make the decisions and create the energy.

"But you've got to see a picture and make a decision on defence.

"If you can't, you're in a world of hurt."

And that's somewhere Ulster really don't want to be again from another visit to their southern rivals.

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