It looks rather ominous already as Ulster prepare to open their back-to-back rounds in the Champions Cup, on Friday night, at the regularly unforgiving venue of Parc y Scarlets, while also heading to west Wales with injury issues which have badly stretched their resources.
The Scarlets are familiar foes from the Pro14 and Ulster took a heavy beating over there two weeks ago in the league and, rather worryingly, the northern province last tasted victory from a visit to Llanelli in December 2012 in what was then the Pro12.
A less than impressive history of playing at the Scarlets’s fortress, in both the league and Europe, allied with Dan McFarland’s squad travelling with no recognised bench cover at lock, along with having to also involve the recently returned Kyle McCall at loosehead prop due to Andy Warwick’s injury, does not seem to augur well for Ulster.
The situation in the engine room – Iain Henderson and Kieran Treadwell are now the only fit secondrows in the squad – has both Alan O'Connor and Ian Nagle ruled out with the latter not added to the European squad this week because of an unrevealed issue.
This seems to indicate that either Clive Ross or Mattie Rea – both normally backrowers – will have to cover the position on the replacements bench while McCall seems set to come in as loosehead prop sub, behind Eric O’Sullivan, for his first involvement of the season on the back of just two AIL games, after recovering from an elbow injury.
Along with the returning Henderson, Ulster should have Will Addison back in the side while Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale will be nailed-on starters.
Ulster, third in Pool Four after beating Leicester Tigers at home, are at least ahead of their opponents as Scarlets sit bottom – with only a point gathered up – and the Welsh side are under pressure after narrowly losing at home to leaders Racing 92 and then being beaten at the Tigers, but Wayne Pivac’s side were in a similar place this time last year and still went on to make Europe’s semi-finals.
For McFarland, Ulster’s discipline has to be on the money as it went badly awry when they were recently turned over 29-12 by the Scarlets after just scraping a win over them at the Kingspan in the opening weekend of Pro14 action.
“We gave them access into our ‘22’ 15 times,” McFarland said of their meeting two weekends ago.
“That was nine times through penalties and although we defended pretty well at times, you cannot give access to a team that understands what they are doing like them,” said McFarland.
“[If you do] you’re not going to win the game.”
After struggling to beat Cardiff Blues last Saturday in Belfast, the onus for this first of two successive European clashes with the Scarlets is also on Ulster sharpening what was a pretty blunt attacking weapon which was on show against the Welsh capital’s side.
“For us attack is a good form of defence,” said McFarland.
“The heat of battle in the Champions Cup is another level. So we have to be on the money,” he added.