Beating Bulls leaves Ulster primed for seismic Champions Cup last-16 tie with Leinster on Saturday

Nick Timoney of Ulster is tackled by Marco van Staden of Vodacom Bulls during the URC match at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Jonathan Bradley

Ulster assistant coach Dan Soper believes Saturday’s bonus-point win over the Bulls was ideal preparation for this weekend’s seismic Champions Cup last-16 tie with Leinster.

The 32-23 victory was the province’s third in succession and saw them secure their place in the URC’s top four but they didn’t have things all their own way against hugely physical opposition. Ulster trailed 20-12 at half-time in what was a slow start after a two-week break for the conclusion of the Six Nations.

Getting to grips with things more after the turn, Soper believes that, ahead of this weekend’s European derby, the nature of the game will have blown away any cobwebs.

“Yeah, it was a shock,” he admitted. “We knew it was going to be physical. We had a couple of weeks off and Jonny (Bell, Ulster’s defence coach) was nervous about it all week. At this time of year when you have a bit of a break you can have a tough training block but it doesn’t just have that physical hard edge to it that playing a team like the Bulls does.

“Jonny was nervous all week and he was right on the money. That was a big physical challenge and we probably didn’t just meet that as well as we would have liked. Second-half we did a bit of a better job.”

Going in against a side like Leinster, who remain unbeaten even if their 19-game winning run was ended in Friday’s draw with the Stormers, Soper believes that a recent upward trajectory is key.

“You step out of the league and the focus shifts slightly but it’s a hell of a challenge and one you want to be arriving at with a bit of confidence,” he said. “Certainly winning helps that.

“It’s always a better place to be Monday morning when you’ve got the win. We’re under no illusions that next week will be another step up again.”

While it is likely that Leo Cullen will make wholesale changes as he welcomes back his Grand Slam contingent to the fold, Soper was impressed by how an understrength Leinster team warmed up for this weekend’s clash at the Aviva Stadium. In an enthralling game befitting of the league’s top two, the Stormers raced into a first-half lead before the hosts clawed their way back, ultimately taking the lead before the champions struck back to tie.

“It was a hell of a game,” he added. “The Stormers were excellent in the first half but in that third quarter, Leinster were tremendous. I suppose (the Bulls) is good preparation physically because there’ll be a lot of collisions to win and we have to be on it.”