McLaughlin keen to stress Ulster's positive frame of mind
ULSTER could make history tomorrow when they take on Edinburgh in Murrayfield (4.05).
Brian McLaughlin's men are without a victory in their last six Magners League matches and have never gone seven games winless in this competition. Not the sort of statistic you want to take on the road to Scotland, particularly when they have lost all three games against Scottish opposition.
It has been a giant comedown up north from those heady weeks pre-Christmas when Ulster seemed to be flying under their indigenous coaching team of McLaughlin, Jeremy Davidson and Neil Doak. That drop-off in form has coincided with Ian Humphreys being removed from his first-choice out-half role (which, incidentally, coincided with Humphreys removing the bushy beard he had borne for a bet since the summer).
Around October/November, we were talking about Humphreys in an Ireland sense after a series of compelling attacking displays, always adding the caveat that he was working hard on improving his defence.
Niall O'Connor has come in for him and starts again tomorrow. He is a different player, more noted for his kicking ability than running and passing skills and has been hampered by the fact that the forward effort has also tapered off since Christmas.
The form fall has allowed Connacht to lift themselves level in the table with their rivals who now find their Heineken Cup place under serious threat for the first time. Although their healthy points difference advantage means victory against Connacht in their final match at Ravenhill could guarantee Ulster safety whatever happens tomorrow (Connacht are away to the Scarlets) beating Edinburgh would be a big boost to brittle confidence.
Easier said than done. Ulster will have the advantage of knowing the Connacht result when they kick-off against Edinburgh but the Scots are chasing a top-four spot and have a team with plenty of punch from winger Tim Visser, through centre Nick De Luca down to Irish line-out-tormenting second-row Jim Hamilton.
McLaughlin is adamant his side travels to Edinburgh "in a positive frame of mind" and has picked a strong side, particularly up front where Stephen Ferris, Robbie Diack and Willie Faloon form a balanced back-row.
"We have played them quite a few times this season. The last time was at Ravenhill in Europe, where we gained the victory," he said. "We will be going to Murrayfield with the belief that we can win."
The words sound less than convincing but there is enough talent in this Ulster side to make this a very close affair and they should leave Edinburgh with something tangible.
EDINBURGH -- B Cairns; T Visser, N De Luca, J Houston, M Robertson; P Godman, G Laidlaw; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross; S MacLeod, J Hamilton; A MacDonald, D Callam, R Grant (capt). Reps: A Kelly, K Traynor, F McKenzie, S Newlands, M Blair, A Turnbull, J Thompson.
ULSTER -- J Smith; A Trimble, D Cave, I Whitten, S Danielli; N O'Connor, P Marshall; T Court, R Best (capt), BJ Botha; E O'Donoghue, D Tuohy; S Ferris, W Faloon, R Diack. Reps: A Kyricaou, B Young, R Caldwell, TJ Anderson, I Boss, I Humphreys, N Spence.
REF -- N Owens (Wales).
Edinburgh v Ulster,
Live, tomorrow, Setanta Ireland, 4.05