Purely on a form line through Northampton Saints, who Ulster beat 35-27 in the quarter-finals and who earned local bragging rights by winning 23-18 in Leicester on Saturday, Ulster will be widely fancied to beat the Tigers at Welford Road on Friday night.
However the Ulster director of rugby Dan McFarland is also probably not alone in believing this Friday’s European Challenge Cup will be a more difficult assignment than their quarter-final just over a fortnight ago.
“It would be a mistake to think because Leicester (eighth in the Premiership) sit below Northampton (fifth), or because Northampton beat them at the weekend, that this is going to be an easier challenge. I don’t see it like that at all,” said McFarland on Monday.
“I actually think it will be a more difficult game for us, more difficult opposition, and that is not to say Northampton aren’t a quality side because they are, and they demonstrated at the weekend that they are. The way that they play is very dangerous, but Northampton will offer you more opportunities for you to play your own way.
“Leicester, unless you are able to do certain things in the game, they can make you struggle. You have to be able to deal with their set piece, you have to be able to deal with their aerial kicking game and their hard runners. These are three aspects of rugby that are critical and if you don’t deal with any one of those, it doesn’t matter how you play, you will be in trouble.”
Even so, it is a source of encouragement that Ulster have a pretty good record on their treks to England, having won four of their last five away games against Premiership opposition, including a 14-13 win at Welford Road two seasons ago.
They are also seeking a third successive knockout win away to Premiership opponents in the Challenge Cup in order to reach the final.
“It is interesting that we have had three English opponents so far and all three have been away from home. The travelling makes it more difficult on a physical side of things but it probably focuses the mind a bit more. It has a level of challenge to it that is quite exciting.
“If you are doing it the hard way you can utilise that in the same way a mountaineer or a climber would, they don’t go battling the same thing they are always looking for a new challenge or a different way of doing something and push themselves beyond what they have done before. For us we can frame this as that. It is a challenge that is worth taking out.”
Ulster are also coming off a derby defeat at home following last Friday’s dramatic loss to Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium, but it is of some consolation that Iain Henderson completed 50 minutes. Injuries and Irish duty have restricted him to just three appearances but now he’s back to lead the side in their most important game of the season to date and McFarland clearly welcomes the lock’s leadership qualities.
“He has an authentic nature to the way he leads. What I mean by that is that quite often when people take over the captaincy or do it on a bigger stage for the first time they feel there is a set of requirements for a captain that need to be fulfilled or ticked off, that they have to somehow fill these requirements as if they’re boxes that need to be filled.
“Often for a lot of people that means going into areas of their personality that isn’t there, it’s not them, and that is usually a mistake. You don’t want to change who you are and the main reason for that is people see through it. The reason we exist is because socially we’re pretty adept at what we’re doing, our DNA has been successful at analysing the way people behave and we want to see people who are true to themselves.
“Iain is true to himself. He is a very logical, calm person. He is somebody who understands what’s going on, he knows and understands what is going on and is able to articulate that to another group of guys. If you’re asking for somebody who is going to burst with angry energy prior to a game it’s not Iain, that is not the way he does it - we’ve got Alan O’Connor for that.
“Iain is much more cerebral but with that comes a calmness and a confidence that people around him go ‘oh yeah, I’ll run out onto the pitch with this guy’. I played with a few captains who are both ways and he has done a really good job of finding his own space as a captain.”
Ulster also confirmed that Jack McGrath underwent hip surgery last week and “he will now begin a period of rehabilitation under the care of the Ulster Rugby Medical Performance team.”