'We didn't feel tired': How Ulster Rugby buzz is carrying squad to Clermont and beyond, explains Marty Moore
It's not so long ago that opening the papers or browsing social media would have exposed Ulster players to all manner of criticism regarding the state of their employers.
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Two years ago, in the middle of a season that saw them lose nine games and two head coaches, one outlet even suggested the whole province should be wound up for the benefit of Irish rugby.
Such was the narrative surrounding the team taken over by Dan McFarland in the summer of 2018, night and day compared to today where the upward trajectory of the side since the arrival of the former Connacht and Scotland forwards coach has them drawing praise from all corners of the island.
Ahead of tomorrow's key clash away to Clermont in the Heineken Champions Cup (1pm kick-off UK time, Stade Marcel-Michelin), a by-product of such positivity has been talk of cases being pressed for the Six Nations.
While only Jacob Stockdale, Iain Henderson and the now-retired Rory Best were central figures for the national side by the time Joe Schmidt's tenure drew to a close at the World Cup, the form of John Cooney, Stuart McCloskey, Will Addison and Rob Herring has seen all four tipped for greater involvement when the Championship begins in only three weeks under new coach Andy Farrell.
Marty Moore's performances have been similarly key to the province's strong run of results and, although he has the not inconsiderable obstacles of Tadhg Furlong and Andrew Porter in his way, the tighthead was included in camp last month for the first time since his move to Wasps in the summer of 2016.
"I was pleasantly surprised because I didn't realise anything was being called over Christmas having been out of the loop for a while," said the former Leinsterman. "It was a nice call to get to say I was going to be heading down there.
"It was the first get together for a lot of a new squad, a lot of new guys, maybe guys like myself who have not been in the set-up for a while, and new coaching staff and a chance to get to know people.
"I have not worked with many of the guys in there before or the backroom staff because there are a lot of new faces around the team.
"It was an enjoyable couple of days, with the second day being all down to business at the training facility out there at Abbotstown. We had a good session."
With squad places for the months ahead to be earned over the next fortnight of European action, Moore adds that nobody at Ulster will be distracted from the task at hand with so much to play for in Europe.
"The first thing is always playing well for your club," he said.
"That's the most important thing that is going to get anyone selected anyway."
Win tomorrow and Ulster will be within touching distance of a home quarter-final in Europe for the first time since 2014 and just their third since the competition began 25 years ago.
While a loss would still leave their last-eight hopes hinging on next weekend's visit of Bath, the benefit both financially and on the field of hosting knockout rugby at Kingspan Stadium is obvious.
But having gone four from four to date in their pool, including a more comfortable than it seemed 18-13 win over tomorrow's opponents in Belfast, there is little doubting that round five brings the most daunting fixture of the slate.
But after beating Munster with a bonus point last Friday night, it's now seven wins in their last eight - that sole reverse coming with a rotated panel against Leinster - and confidence is naturally high even ahead of a trip to what has traditionally been one of the most fearsome away trips on offer in European competition.
"It is an exciting time to be playing in this team," Moore confirmed.
"We kind of joked about it last week, we didn't really feel tired at half-time even if our bodies were actually wrecked.
"At the end of the game we said the same because we have such an energy in the squad and there is such a buzz about us and about the way we go about our business.
"We really don't have time to think about knocks and bangs, fatigue and external factors. Sometimes the mind can wander and drift during games that might be stop-start or not going so well, but the way we are I think is just testament to the mindset of the squad as a whole and the way we go about our business and the atmosphere that we build among ourselves.
"(That's) whether it's an away game with nobody in the stands or the completely different scenario of going to Clermont away which will be a cauldron.
"It is something we are very excited about and it is something we look forward to rather than fear."
Indeed, such is the feel-good factor emanating from Kingspan Stadium these days that McFarland has even warned against something many of his recent predecessors could only have dreamed - wins breeding overconfidence.
"Well, that is the thing," admitted Moore, noting that the coach's attitude was very much shared by the playing staff. "We are very aware that we are still in the group stages of Europe and we are only coming into the second half of the domestic season, so it is very early days.
"Whether it is in the first or second week of Europe or at this stage, we have that belief in ourselves but we are not getting overconfident. We know that it's if we get out and put the work in that teams will kind of struggle to live with us."
There are few greater tests of that theory than Clermont in the Stade Marcel-Michelin. Ulster at present, though, have every reason to believe.