For all their injury woes of late, Ulster have been given a timely boost with the news that Charles Piutau has returned to training, as have Luke Marshall, Stuart Olding, while Franco van der Merwe and Andrew Trimble also look like being in the mix for Saturday's testing opening assignment in the Champions Cup away to Bordeaux.
According to assistant coach Joe Barakat, "we look like we are getting some guys back, Lukey Marshall, Stuart Olding and Charles trained with us today.
“Losing Louis [Ludik] last week was crucial as he has been in outstanding form for us,” said Barakat in reference to their in-form South African utility back, who suffered a fractured cheekbone in last weekend’s defeat away to Connacht and will be out for four to six weeks.
Darren Cave has also been ruled out for three to four weeks after sustained a calf tear in the same match, thus joining Stuart McCloskey, Chris Henry, Wiehahn Herbst and Ricky Lutton on the sidelines.
“We’re getting injuries,” said Barakat, “but we are also getting players who are coming back which isn’t ideal because if you’re doing a rotation you’d like to do a rotation where the players are given a good rest and they are not necessarily recovering from injuries. But it’s looking positive and we’ll be going over there as strong as possible.”
Having confirmed that van der Merwe and Trimble are available this week, Barakat admitted that starting with a win is paramount to their hopes of progressing, given their pool also includes Exeter and Clermont, although a caveat is the poor state of the pitch at the Stade Chaban Delmas, where Bordeaux have been attracting an average crowd in excess of 23,000 over the last two seasons.
“We’re not going over to lose this. We’re confident that we have done our homework and we understand the nature of the team we are playing.
“We have a real concern and you will have noticed it if you have watched they home games of late that their pitch is quite poor and tears up.”
“It’s not a concern about them, it’s about our own injuries and everything we do on a pitch like that has to be going forward.
“As soon as you want to put your feet under you and try to survive all you’re going to do is slide backwards. Our focus is about going forward.”
Barakat’s fellow Australian, Adam Ashley-Cooper, has been on fire with five tries in five games.
“Their foreign players have a real impact and that hasn’t been lost on us in the preparation for this game and what we see what their do and the energy they gave that team and it will be good to catch up with Ash over the season.”
Barakat, of course, is being released by Ulster so as he can take up an offer as defence coach with the Western Force. “It was probably the biggest decision I have ever had to make in my life as a rugby player or rugby coach.
“I’m leaving a fantastic city, and a fantastic organisation; an organisation who I know will have silverware in their cupboard at the end of this season and my only regret will be not being here to celebrate with them.
“There are some fantastic footballers and our best football is yet to come.”
“I’m going home for a number of reasons. It is a great opportunity to help out Australian rugby which I suppose is why I’m in the game ultimately to get back and do my bit there but also to be back close to the family.”
“Ulster have been fantastic. Kissy [Les Kiss] has been fantastic they understand these opportunities don’t come around that often in a country where there is limited opportunities in Super Rugby, so it’s difficult to say no to but the support from Ulster Rugby and their ability to frame me up to leave in late December was really generous of them.”
Reflecting on last week’s first defeat of the season, Barakat revealed that Ulster missed 28 tackles in the game, and nine were missed in the first 90 seconds.
“We have addressed that, a lot of what let us down was attitudinal not necessarily organisation we still have nearly the best defence in the competition.
“You were here last year when we played Oyonnax and we had the same problem and occasionally it rears its ugly head and we just have to deal with it so we have moved on very quickly and we have a Champions Cup game to play this week.”
Noting also that Ulster had four wins out of four against Toulouse and Oyonnax last season, he added: “We’re not daunted by going to Bordeaux and we know they are well coached by [Raphael] Ibanez and he is quite a character in French rugby.
“They have good footballers and we have done our homework well and we’re looking forward to it.”