Ulster keen to maintain momentum in URC after kicking losing habit

Reigning champions Stormers to come on Friday in Belfast

Ulster v Stormers, URC, Friday January 27th, Kingspan Stadium, kick-off 7.35

Back to the grind for Ulster this week but at least they return to URC action in a more upbeat frame of mind having kicked the losing habit and, in the process, managed to slip through to Europe’s knockout round of 16.

Hosting the Stormers, on Friday evening, is their final outing in what has been a markedly unsettling 10-game block of European and URC action and Ulster need to sign off for the three-week break by backing up last Saturday’s home result over Sale to rediscover their winning touch in the league.

Having been turned over by Munster, at home, and at Benetton Rugby since last tasting victory in the league just before Christmas at Connacht, Dan McFarland’s squad have dropped down the table to fourth and now trail Friday’s opponents, who are in second, by seven points.


The northern province are also glancing over their shoulder with Glasgow just four points behind them so shipping more damage in the league – worryingly the rearranged fixture at the Sharks is still to come – will have to be avoided at all costs if Ulster are to get back in the hunt for a top two finish.

This week they will also be without Ireland squad members Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole and Stuart McCloskey though Rory Sutherland may be released back from Scotland.

On matters Scotland, Gregor Townsend’s comments that John Cooney had reached out to him regarding switching international allegiance – the Ulster nine could yet join Ben Healy and be available to the Scots from later next month should Townsend opt to bring him in – has brought further attention to what the future may hold for the 32-year-old scrumhalf on an issue which originally emerged before Christmas.

When asked to comment on the matter, Ulster assistant coach Jonny Bell said that he had not spoken to Cooney on the subject and stated: “That’s a personal matter between him and Gregor (Townsend).

“Whatever John decides it’s got to be the best for him and for his career.

“It’s maybe an avenue he wants to look at so that’s up to him. His main focus is with us and making sure we get ourselves going well,” added Bell.

Regarding Friday’s game, the Stormers are coming to Belfast for the first time but less than two weeks after being in the northern hemisphere to play London Irish and are leaving skipper Steven Kitshoff, who joins Ulster after the World Cup, as well as fellow Springbok Damian Willemse back in Cape Town.

Not exactly great scheduling for the URC champions as they just play Ulster, before heading back home again.

The northern province will reckon they have an edge here and will be particularly eager to not only get a vital win but also make up for the teams’ previous two meetings which the Stormers won in Cape Town, the previous occasion being their last-gasp victory in last June’s URC semi-final.

“As a team it’s about momentum and we’re back in the URC and we need to get a good win this weekend,” said Bell.

“But the Stormers know this is crucial game for them and they’re going to be coming confident.

“They’re playing well and will be looking to move the ball around. They’re the reigning champions for a reason,” added Bell.