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McLaughlin looks to future with deals for Ulster trio

EVEN ahead of the biggest European date in Belfast in years, the wheeling and dealing continued at Ravenhill yesterday.

After the announcement last week that Niall O'Connor and Mark McCrea were heading out west to join Connacht, Ulster secured the futures of Dan Tuohy -- on a two-year deal -- and prop Paddy McAllister and centre Nevin Spence, who were upgraded from development to full contracts.

Lock Tuohy has made a considerable impact since his arrival from Exeter at the start of the 2009-10 season and was capped by Ireland last summer, while former Northern Ireland U-16 soccer player Spence has featured regularly in the Ulster midfield alongside Paddy Wallace.

Paddy McAllister's rise has been rapid: he made his debut in September when he came off the bench against the Ospreys having only signed his academy deal a couple of months earlier.

But the feel-good factor around Ravenhill will dissipate quickly should they fail to reach the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.

Biarritz's shock defeat to Aironi earlier in Round 3 means that Ulster lie just three points behind last year's finalists in Pool 4 and with Ulster due to face the Italians in the final round, Brian McLaughlin's side are well placed to make the knock-out stages for the first time since their 1999 triumph.

Ulster were on the receiving end of a 35-10 hammering when the sides met in France, but are a different prospect at home where they have won their last seven European matches.

"Getting to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals has been one of our prime objectives for the season," said McLaughlin.

"The match against Biarritz is an extremely important game because, we have it all to play for -- there are two games left and they are two games we must win."

Irish Independent