Day of reckoning arrives for Ulster
Two wins over Bath are essential for Brian McLaughlin's side, writes Brendan Fanning
I f the win in Cardiff two weeks ago had the look of salvation for Ulster's season then Saturday lunchtime in Belfast could be its transformation.
Remember that had they lost in Wales in that Magners League game, it would have left them with four successive defeats going understrength to Treviso five days later, a Treviso side who had already done enough damage to Irish teams this season. Instead they took the bonus in Cardiff and then inflicted on the Italians only their second home defeat of the season. Perfect.
Well, perhaps not that. Having turned potential disaster into two straight wins, Brian McLaughlin had targeted Friday night against the Dragons as the launch pad to get back into contention in Pool 4 in the Heineken Cup. Their non-performance in Biarritz in the last round immediately had a grim look to it, which only got worse when followed by successive defeats in the Magners.
But there's a decent chance of a second qualifier coming out of this pool. And if it's going to be Ulster then they need to eliminate Bath comprehensively over the next two weekends. A haul of 19 points might well be enough to see them qualify for the first time since 1998/'99. Back-to-back wins in these next two rounds would set them up for the final fixtures against Biarritz (home) and Aironi (away) in January.
"The key thing for us is that we go to Bath in the second game with something to play for," McLaughlin says. "One way or another, be it Amlin or Heineken Cup. We were so disappointed last season that we missed out by such a narrow margin. We really want to prove that we've improved, that we're capable of competing with the best."
The chance to do that was against Biarritz in October. And they collapsed after half-time.
"When we look back at it in the cold light of day, those first 40 minutes against Biarritz we felt we were the better team. We felt we didn't take our opportunities and then in the second half we got a sting in the tail from them. But we proved in the first 40 minutes that we could compete with them so we've got to turn that into a major positive for us, and against Bath on Saturday to make sure we play for 80."
The fixture brings together two teams going in different directions. Ulster welcome back a sizeable international contingent in one piece, which McLaughlin can weld to the group who minded the shop well when they were away. Bath on the other hand have won just two of their last nine games.
Their early-season optimism -- predicated on the money of their massively wealthy owner Bruce Craig -- will more likely take a few seasons so justify. Lewis Moody was their marquee signing but his all-round game hasn't filled the gap left by openside Jules Salvi. Nor have they adequately replaced wing Joe Maddock. And with a front five who are struggling -- they jointly top the Premiership for set-pieces lost -- it's food and drink to Ulster.
McLaughlin hopes to have Johann Muller fit again and his only real selection issue will be who to start in the back row. In the last few weeks, Willie Faloon has made himself very useful though it remains to be seen if the coach goes for what he has to offer. Recent history would suggest a starting unit of Pedrie Wannenburg, Robbie Diack at eight and Stephen Ferris at openside, with Chris Henry on the bench.
Nowhere in that lot is there a scavenger, however, which is Faloon's stock in trade. Given that Bath don't have one either, this might be the ideal time to give a real open side a run.