While last Friday’s dismemberment of Munster suggests that Ulster possess many of the components needed to become one of the two teams left standing in next week’s URC, their bid to make the final is facing some formidable hurdles.
The challenge of winning Saturday’s semi-final is essentially twofold. Not only do they face a Stormers side with a hefty collection of wins to their name, but Dan McFarland’s squad have the added issue of having to play in Cape Town.
They depart today on their long-haul journey and, of course, should they get the job done at the DHL Stadium – it was only some dire officiating which robbed them of victory when there at the end of March with the hope being that such calamity will not be repeated – they will have to return and be ready for Saturday week’s Grand Final after another 12-hour flight across the hemispheres.
Whether that will put them in the right place to severely test Leinster’s hegemony in this competition – working on the reasonable-looking assumption that the Bulls will not stop Leo Cullen’s side at the RDS on Friday – remains hypothetical but, naturally enough, the journeying did crop up as the northern province prepare to head to the airport.
“Yes, the travel is a big factor,” admitted Ulster assistant coach Dan Soper.
“But it’s part of the league. You deal with it, and you can draw on other teams’ experiences and what’s worked for them.
“It’s the way it is, you have to learn how to best cope with it and mitigate against it impacting negatively on our performance.
“We won’t be using it as an excuse,” Soper added of whatever is to come either this week or on the following one.
The northern province will be heading over the equator without being able to deploy fullback Michael Lowry who has undergone surgery for a facial injury sustained last month against the Sharks and whose place on Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand may also now be in some doubt.
Soper, whose attack plays showcased James Hume’s currently outstanding form against an admittedly lacklustre Munster last weekend, also praised the quality of Stewart Moore in filling the number 15 shirt despite essentially being a centre.
“He’s such a talented footballer that as a centre it’s tough when you’ve got Stuart (McCloskey) and James (Hume) in front of you.
“Stewart has been patient and has shown us things in training. We have a lot of confidence that he can go and play at fullback and he’s doing really well,” said Soper.
While Ulster were rightly lauded for some of their strike moves against Munster, they are keenly aware that even though the Stormers had some tricky moments in seeing off Edinburgh in their quarter-final, the home side possess some serious ordinance through the attacking threat of regular season top try scorer Leolin Zas, the carrying of Evan Roos, breakdown work of Deon Fourie and scrummaging of Steven Kitshoff.
But so do Ulster. Should their scrum hold up and their breakdown work be on the money, the northern province’s backline, led by the unsung Billy Burns, is in the form to deliver scores.
“We have a game that can really go and challenge them,” maintained Soper.
“This as an opportunity to test ourselves and see how good our game is for knockout footie.”
A case of winning first and then wondering about another 12 hours being airborne.