|Heineken Champions Cup: Ulster v Racing 92|
|Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Date: Saturday, 12 January Kick-off: 15:15 GMT|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Sport website and BBC Radio Ulster MW|
For some Ulster supporters it must feel as though they are already in bonus territory when it comes to this season.
Twelve months ago, Les Kiss quit as director of rugby in the middle of a torrid campaign that ended with his successor Jono Gibbes also departing.
The new side that has emerged from the chaos of last season will host Racing 92 on Saturday with a European Cup quarter-final still within their grasp.
“Last season brought us all closer together,” said scrum-half John Cooney.
“Our last five games we went unbeaten and it showed a lot of the resilience and heart within this team and it’s come to the fore now where everyone is very tight-knit and with all the new coaching staff we’ve learnt a lot.
“It’s that ‘win or learn’ mentality and it seems to be really working now. Everyone is pretty close and working really hard.”
Low expectations give way to optimism
Expectations were low when new head coach Dan McFarland arrived just before the start of the season and was handed a youthful squad that had been shorn of internationals such as Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble but, on the 20th anniversary of Ulster’s sole Heineken Cup success, their performances in Europe have sparked fresh optimism around Kingspan Stadium.
The Irish province are second in Pool Four after the opening four rounds and trail leaders Racing 92 by five points ahead of this weekend’s meeting in Belfast.
A win for McFarland’s side would leave them well positioned to at least reach the knock-out stages as one of the three best-placed runners up.
“I think we definitely have progressed,” said assistant coach Dwyane Peel, who is one of the survivors from last year’s coaching team.
“It’s still a work in progress but I think we’re definitely getting better, the understanding between players, the combinations. I think it was the Leicester game, the first round of Europe, where Will [Addison] played in the centre with Stuart McCloskey so that relationship has obviously grown and that’s just an example of how we’re progressing.”
Harnessing European momentum
Since the beginning of their European campaign this season, Ulster have lost just four from 11 matches including consecutive wins over Scarlets in the back-to-back pool matches in mid-December.
“Winning back-to-back in December, that’s the crucial thing you need to do to put yourself in a position where you can qualify,” added Peel.
“So the players have worked hard for it, as have everyone within the organisation, I think it would be good for the squad and the organisation [if we can win this week].
“It’s exciting to be in the position we are going into the last two games and that’s what you want at the start of the competition, you want to be there at this point.”
Cooney agrees that the double-header against Scarlets has helped to strengthen the belief within the playing group: “People doubted us. I don’t think people believed that we could go over [and beat Scarlets] and that week was a huge moment for us in the season.
“We took a lot of confidence from that because people didn’t think we could do that and then we backed it up the following week. So it’s been building and building and it feels like it’s coming to the front now for this week, which is a huge game.”
|European Champions Cup Pool Four|
Ireland lock Iain Henderson’s thumb injury means he will be unavailable this week and he has been joined on the treatment table by prop Kyle McCall and wing Angus Kernohan while young fly-half/full-back Michael Lowry is a doubt because of a concussion.
Racing also have injury concerns ahead of their trip to Belfast with France international Teddy Thomas set to miss the game due to a thigh strain recurrence, but Cooney says the Top14 side still represent an imposing challenge.