IT HAS been a really exciting season for both supporters of our club and the Guinness Pro12 league in general.
To have three teams – Ospreys, Munster and ourselves – all on the same 70-point mark going into the last round of fixtures and Ulster only one point further behind shows how competitive the league has been this year. With places up for grabs for European Champions Cup qualification, it will be a fascinating 80 minutes of rugby across the board on Saturday afternoon.
We are well aware of the challenge that awaits us from the first whistle
We were disappointed with our performance last weekend at Ospreys and we came away second best against a well-organised Ospreys side who are now in pole position to land a home play-off semi-final, although as we discovered almost three weeks ago when we played in Galway, they will find Connacht very difficult opposition to beat.
Connacht have put themselves in a position to also make it into Europe and underlined their determination to do so by the way they despatched Zebre last week, which will have given them a lot of confidence going into Saturday’s game.
While we know Munster’s home game against the Dragons will be a tough match, from our perspective we realise that we at least have to match Munster’s result to qualify for a home semi-final, if we are to assume that Ospreys pick up a win against Connacht. But we have our own challenge this week against an Ulster team who are also going for a home semi-final. Obviously they have their destiny outwith their own hands somewhat being in fourth place but I don’t believe that will change anything in their mindset or motivation.
Ulster will know that a victory on Saturday could yet give them a home semi-final at The Kingspan Stadium in Belfast, which is also the venue for this year’s Guinness Pro12 Final.
We have a lot of respect for Ulster and we have had some titanic battles with them over the last three seasons which have gone either way. They have a lot of similar traits to ourselves, especially in defence as they are very tough to break down and they compete very hard for the ball after the tackle is made.
Ulster also play with a lot of passion and competitiveness and they fight hard for everything throughout 80 minutes. They must also have an excellent fitness base as Ulster are the strongest performers in the Pro12 in the final quarter of games, so we are well aware of the challenge that will await us from the first whistle until the last on Saturday afternoon.
But we are very motivated ourselves for a couple of reasons and the first of those is to improve on our performance last weekend against Ospreys and especially in front of our own supporters.
We know that a home semi-final is on the line and also that we will be playing in front of around 10,000 supporters at home for only the second time in our history.
Last year’s play-off semi-final against Munster was an unforgettable occasion and we would love to be in the situation again of preparing for a home semi-final in a week’s time.
Away from the preparation for this weekend’s match there are couple of things I’d like to mention. First, I thought the Glasgow 7s at Scotstoun was a fantastic occasion last weekend. Scotland have shown real consistency and improvement this season and certainly got the crowd behind them on Sunday when they came close to beating both New Zealand and South Africa. I thought the event was both excellent and very entertaining and all credit to the ground staff at Scotstoun as the pitch is still in great condition for Saturday’s match with Ulster.
I’d also like to mention Euan Murray, who announced his retirement from international rugby earlier this week. He has been an outstanding player for Scotland over the last ten years and to get 66 caps in the front row is a tremendous achievement.
For Euan to still be playing very good rugby at this stage in his career is a tribute to his professionalism and determination to continue putting his body on the line over and over again.