They remain the only unbeaten team in any top level European competition, but Ulster approach their crunch Heineken double-header against Northampton Saints knowing full well that a run of defeats now would effectively end their chances of reaching the knockout stages and another pop at a European final this season.
Not that they won’t be confident of victory in Northampton, and in the return fixture at Ravenhill the following weekend. On a run of twelve consecutive victories from the start of the season, Ulster have developed a winning habit, able to get results when not playing particularly well. But they’re also capable of raising their game to match any side in Europe, and that’s what is required over the coming weeks, a defining part of the season.
“It’s always an exciting time” according to former Ulster fullback Bryn Cunningham, “the head-to-head rounds of 3 & 4 will nearly always decide whether your chances of group qualification are still alive or all over for another year. As a result the intensity, focus and nerves go up a notch the week leading into the first of the battles with no stone left unturned in terms of opposition analysis”
Capped over 150 times by the province, Cunningham expects a “titanic struggle” in two closely fought affairs but believes Ulster have a good chance of continuing their great start to the season against the Saints. “There is a confidence in the squad that you can’t buy” he says, and that undoubtedly has helped Ulster get over the line through some recent patchy performances.
After rounds 3 & 4 in the Heineken, Ulster return to Pro12 action, facing two Irish derbies over Christmas. Their increasing international representation is perhaps an extra motivation for Ulster to perform well in these festive fixtures. They face Leinster, a team against whom Cunningham admits Ulster “still struggle to perform to their best”, before an away trip to Thomond Park to play Munster.
He considers their mental approach as vital to their match day preparation as they aim to “finally get the monkey off their backs of a big performance and win against Leinster”. For whatever reasons the European champions still hold an advantage over their northern rivals, that despite Ulster’s rapid improvements over the last two seasons.
But Bryn and many other Ulster fans can boast “there is little doubt that Ulster have finally eclipsed Munster into second place in the bragging rights” within Irish rugby. That in itself is a reflection of the confidence within the Ulster rugby community. And while there are early signs of rebuilding under the guidance of Rob Penney, Ulster will hope to consolidate their edge over Munster.
It’s a crucial period in determining the shape of the season, but a fruitful December could propel Ulster to great success in 2013.
David Blair (@viscount_dave)