Ulster have regrouped from a disappointing European campaign to tackle the challenge of a crucial Vodacom United Rugby Championship clash against the heavy-handed Sharks in Belfast on Friday night. DYLAN JACK reports.
Ulster will welcome the Durban outfit to the Kingspan Stadium with both teams targeting a top-four finish and securing a home quarter-final.
Ulster and the Sharks have already got their tickets to the knockout stage of the URC, but it will be a case of winner-takes-all when the race for a home playoff comes to a head on Friday.
“It is fair to say that it is a very important game. We have both qualified for the quarter-finals and we have both qualified for Europe, but the prize is a home quarter-final and it goes to the winner,” Ulster head coach Dan McFarland said during a media conference on Monday. “That has a huge impact for both teams, I’m sure.
“For us, it’s about wanting to play at home in front of our fans. It makes it a very important game and one which we look forward to.”
The focus of the last couple of weekends has been on the European playoffs as the Champions and Challenge Cup quarter- and semi-finals took place. Irish giants Leinster and French side La Rochelle progressed to the final of the Champions Cup, while Toulon and Lyon will face off for the Challenge Cup.
While Ulster are used to being involved in the deeper stages of European competitions, this year they had to watch the playoffs from home, something McFarland admits was not fun.
“I didn’t enjoy the [European] quarter-final and semi-final weekend nearly as much as previous year. Last year, we were involved in both and it is one of my favourite weekends of the year. Not playing in both is bad and really disappointing.
“We have refocused pretty quickly. Mentally we have refocused. I think we were pretty tired in the Munster game after travelling to South Africa and then to Toulouse and then we had the big home disappointment against Toulouse. But we have bounced back and even though we didn’t play our best rugby, we beat Edinburgh away from home in a titanic struggle that required us to dig as deep as we have had to this year. That gave us a real sense of belief of what we are capable of.”
McFarland said there are similarities in the way that all four South African teams play, but expects the Sharks to be particularly dangerous from broken play.
“It’s not complicated, really. They test you in the set piece, all of them in varying degrees in different areas. It’s not rocket science, but it is at another level to a lot of the teams in the URC. Their physicality and ball-carriying are also right up there. Three of those teams are right up there in terms of winning gainline when playing off nine. It’s tough to deal with, though it is an area we pride ourselves in.
“They have also got lethal back threes, so broken-field running and loose kicking can be fatal against a number of the South African teams, particularly the Sharks.”
In the previous outing against Connacht in Durban, the Sharks fielded a starting lineup with eight Springboks and are likely to do so again this weekend, something that excites McFarland.
“They are very fabulous players. They are World Cup winners. It is brilliant that our home stadium here will have the chance to host players of that quality. The addition of the South African teams has really added to that. Siya Kolisi is not the only star in the Sharks team. They have got a number of World Cup winners. They will bring some stardust to the Kingspan on Friday, just like we will put out on the pitch.”
Photo: Twitter: @UlsterRugby