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McLaughlin's methods have Ulster moving

B rian McLaughlin is not long in the job as Ulster coach but the past week will live with him for the rest of his time in Ravenhill.

Each day brought fresh uncertainty: would the game against Ospreys go ahead on Friday night? Would his team be able to find somewhere to train? And if all that worked out, would he be able to patch together a workable back row where Ulster are undergoing a freakish run of injuries?

Having done well on the training front to get temporary shelter from schools and colleges, the game went south late in the week when Ravenhill was declared to be "a brick" as he described it. And already the battle is on to have it usable for next weekend against Edinburgh. It was against the Scots that Pool 4 started to slip away

"It's not beyond us but it's out of our hands, if you know what I mean," he says of Ulster's European position. Even if Stade beat Bath in Paris next weekend, they could go to Edinburgh and lose in the last round and be overtaken. Those doing the overtaking would be Edinburgh or Ulster, one of whom will be done for next weekend.

"If you look at our group we've got to hold our hands up and say our performance in Edinburgh, which was really disappointing, has put us in a position where we're relying on them doing us a favour," McLaughlin says.

"And we've still got to beat them next Friday. And that's not going to be easy -- Edinburgh are a handy little outfit now, very competitive and what they do they do very well. They play excellently as a team but if we can eke out a result then we've got to go to Bath and Stade will find that Edinburgh at home will fight tooth and nail. And the run they're on at the minute in France, since we played them, they're not playing well."

Nobody outside of Ravenhill, and probably few inside it, expected Ulster to go where no Ulster team has gone since 1989/'99. A new coach with no experience at this level, and a limited squad -- why would you think they would suddenly make it into the knock-out stages?

McLaughlin has done well across the board so far but he has his eye as much on the escape route into the Amlin Challenge Cup as on the less likely prospect of a Heineken Cup quarter-final. While the two best runners-up will qualify for the Heineken knock-outs, the next best three will switch into the Challenge Cup at the quarter-final stage.

"We're pushing away here and we're emphasising the importance of us competing in the Magners League and we're really trying to push as close to the top four as we possibly can," he says. "The first place qualification for Europe is still a possibility and that's what we've got to hope for but at the same time we'd be happy to be still involved in some competition after the group stage.

"We feel that would be a quality progression for us and would do us good. I don't want to sound negative: our dream is to be involved in the European Cup competition but if we have to go into the Amlin then it's not the end of the world for us."

The time to judge McLaughlin will be the end of next season, by which stage he will have made further progress with his home-grown talent. His back row collection of David Pollock, Willie Faloon and Chris Henry top that list. Henry, in particular, has become a team leader, taking full value from the absence of South African Robbie Diack, who won't be playing again until next month.

"Chris has been a revelation," McLaughlin says. "Well, I wouldn't say he was coming from nowhere -- I've known him a long time and he was my captain for Ulster schools a long, long time ago and he's always had that potential. He's always been a good leader and he's always been a good player.

"This season he's really stepped up to the mark and he's answered a lot of his critics I think outstandingly well. I don't think he's been given a fair chance in Ulster until this year in my opinion. He's proved his worth. Everybody said he was too young or he was short a yard of pace or this, that and the other, but he has a smashing rugby brain and he's a great competitor."

The emergence of Jamie Smith in the Magners League games against Leinster and Munster, and the greater input now of Johnny Shiels, is further evidence that putting faith in local talent -- by giving them games rather than seats in the stand -- can pay off. McLaughlin used the pre-season well to this end, and the effect is that when Rory Best gets back on the field sooner than planned -- he is back in full-contact training -- he will be leading a better team than the one he has been watching from the sidelines since the start of the season. And hopefully they will still be involved in Europe, in one competition or the other.

Sunday Independent