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We're giving our all to reach the play-offs: Van der Merwe

Zebre v Ulster, Guinness Pro12 League: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Sunday, 12.30pm

By Jonathan Bradley

After sealing back-to-back Guinness PRO12 wins for the first time in over four months, Ulster lock Franco van der Merwe believes players at Kingspan are working harder than ever.

The five-try bonus-point win over Glasgow on Saturday was one of the province's most commanding performances of the season, featuring some eye-catching rugby along the way.

And while the lacklustre run from October through to February has left the side still with much to do to be sure of their place in the end-of-season play-offs, 10 points from their last two games has left the province in a much better place ahead of this weekend's trip to face Zebre in Parma.

Now fifth in the table, Les Kiss' men are six points behind Scarlets in the last of the spots that would bring a semi-final, with Sunday's game the first of three against Italian opposition between now and the middle of March.

Focused on making the most of the upcoming run, Van der Merwe wants to see the side maintain their recent standards against the league's perennial strugglers.

"I think there was a lot of pressure on us in the previous game," said the lock who will move to Cardiff this summer.

"I think the guys delivered well against Edinburgh with a bonus point, and again last weekend with another bonus point.

"We can't get ahead of ourselves, we have to focus on the next game, but there is a big buzz and good energy.

"As Les has said, when we got back after the break there was a real hunger in the squad in each session and the guys worked hard, harder than before.

"We know what's at stake here and we know we have to work in every single game.

"We can enjoy this win, but we are going to have to refocus again for next week."

Van der Merwe went the full 80 minutes against Glasgow, something that was a regular occurrence in his first two seasons in Belfast after arriving in 2014.

With Kiss enjoying more depth in the position this year, he has rotated things in his engine room much more often.

Iain Henderson has split time between lock and back-row, while Pete Browne has proven to be a solid addition and youngsters Kieran Treadwell and Alan O'Connor continue to progress when injuries have opened the door.

And while Van der Merwe is enjoying the competition, he admitted it was pleasing to go wire to wire against Gregor Townsend's men.

"It's been a while since I got to 80 again," said the once-capped South African. "But a lot of the second-row guys have been really playing well.

"Treaders has come in this season and has really performed well, while Alan O'Connor we know has shown great form ever since he starting playing for us. He's one of the guys coming through the Academy and he's been really playing well. It's good to have that competition.

"So for me to get to those 80 minutes was really good, although there was a little bit of a blow out at the end.

"That's the system we've got at the moment, it's just not the 15 or 23 players, we've got a strong squad. I think what Ulster has been working on the last couple of years has meant a strong squad, and throughout the Six Nations, a couple of injuries, we've still a strong enough squad who can play."

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