Ulster braced for must-win visit to Harlequins

Dan McFarland’s men need to put home defeat to Toulouse behind them as they face in-form Premiership high-flyers at the Stoop

At least the situation for this weekend is straightforward: Ulster need to win at the Stoop to guarantee their place in the last 16 of the Champions Cup.

Four or five points will render Racing 92′s home clash with Cardiff irrelevant to Pool Two’s final shakedown, though on the flip side defeat for the northern province will have consequences and likely see them pipped at the post by Stuart Lancaster’s squad, the assumption being that the French club will deal with their Welsh visitors.

So, a lot on the line for Dan McFarland’s players who were not only badly shaken by how easily they were dismissed by Antoine Dupont and co last Saturday at the Kingspan Stadium (they lost 48-24 and conceded seven tries) but are also now under pressure to stay in Europe’s premier competition and preferably avoid heading towards knockout rugby in the Challenge Cup.

It helps that they have a good record against Harlequins home and away in recent years, but this is now a Quins team with a very healthy mix of game-breakers in Marcus Smith and Danny Care along with the power of Alex Dombrandt and Andre Esterhuizen. The London club, though already qualified, will doubtless want to chase a potential second-place pool finish and therefore the advantage of a home knockout tie.


Ulster may have backrow David McCann available for this crunch game as he is believed to have recovered from the ankle issue that has kept him out since November. His return could be timely as both Sean Reffell and Dave Ewers are doubts after being replaced early against Toulouse.

Also, with Quins’ flanker Will Evans in full destructive mode at the breakdown and dovetailing excellently with Dombrandt, Ulster will need a response in this area if they are to bounce back from the difficulties they encountered here – and in practically every other area – against Toulouse.

“It’s going to be a big battlefield at the breakdown,” said Ulster assistant coach Roddy Grant whose responsibility, along with the lineout, is in this very area.

“They do it really well, Will Evans is top of the Premiership for jackal turnovers, Alex Dombrandt is second I think and James Chisholm the other backrower and is in fourth.

“Individually they get a lot of turnovers and cause a lot of trouble at the breakdown and as a team it suits their attack and counterattack.

“If you can look after that there should be space [elsewhere] so the big focus for us is on getting that [the breakdown] right and not getting too panicked knowing that they might nick a couple as they do it every game against all teams.

“It will be big focus for us this week,” added Grant who also pointed out that Ulster’s lineout work both in attack and defence – the latter with Danny Care sure to be sniping around the fringes much like Dupont – would have to be sharp and focused.

And in terms of morale at the Kingspan after the struggles of last Saturday which so brutally ended Ulster’s three-match winning run, against Racing 92 in Europe and then Connacht and Leinster in the URC, Grant was confident Ulster have it in them to respond to this must-win situation.

“Motivation wise, it’s pretty easy as, yes, we’ve had a very disappointing loss at home but then it’s another huge game in Europe away and there’s a lot on the line.

“It’s an opportunity this weekend against a team going really well in the Premiership.

“They’ll be motivated over qualifying, and we’re extremely motivated ourselves and preparation wise, we’re confident we’re going about it in a good way.”

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