AFTER an unbeaten start to the season in the RaboDirect Pro12, Ulster are expecting a step up in class when they face Castres in their Heineken Cup opener this weekend, but, after last season's exploits, reaching the final, there is expectation and confidence about this ever-improving squad.
"IT has come around really quickly," prop John Afoa said.
"We have played really well in patches but we can park that now, really focus on the ERC and we have two games in a block that we can focus on now, go all out and try and be there or thereabouts at Christmas."
The former All Black and his front-row colleagues are expecting a very different challenge this week after dominating Connacht in the 25-0 last Friday, their first home game since the tragic death of Nevin Spence, to the extent that they were awarded a penalty try for a scrum collapse.
"It is always a different mindset for the French," he admitted. "They are not a team who we play against regularly in the Pro12, so we will have to take a good look at them.
"They are a bit of an unknown, but the key for us is to keep doing what we are doing and we hope to do that.
"We can't get caught up in just the scrum. That is enjoyable when it is going well, but we know we need the full package and need to be able to launch attacks off that scrum."
The result last Friday prevented Connacht from building on their magnificent 34-6 triumph over Leinster in the Sportsground.
Eric Elwood's men now lie 10th in the Pro12 but their attention will turn to European matters as they kick off their second season in the Heineken Cup against Zebre on Saturday.
As impressive as the win over Leinster was, stand-in Willie Faloon knows it is of little value unless that level of performance can be reproduced against Zebre to get them back on track after the defeat to Ulster.
"Zebre is going to be a tough test and everyone is looking forward to it already," he said.