Should Ulster suffer a reverse in Edinburgh tomorrow night, it will represent their worst run in the many guises of this league for more than 10 years.
lready in all competitions, Dan McFarland’s men have lost four of five games — a sequence that has seen them knocked out of the Champions Cup and drop from second to fifth in the United Rugby Championship standings.
While there is certainly context to it to be applied — two of those five games came against European champions Toulouse, while two more were played in South Africa — but there is no denying they looked far from themselves against Munster last week.
That defeat served to shift the goalposts on this season’s final weeks with Ulster now needing to make sure of their place in end-of-season play-offs and next season’s Champions Cup before concerning themselves with home advantage in those domestic knock-out games.
For Alan O’Connor, one of the side’s longest serving players having pulled on the jersey more than 150 times since making his debut in December of 2012, not allowing the negative results to lead to a negative atmosphere is imperative.
“If we had beaten Toulouse at home, we’d not be having this conversation,” said the lock.
“I know the Munster defeat was bad but throughout the year we’ve had a really good foundation, we’ve played a really good brand of rugby.
“I’ve been at Ulster for a while, so I’ve seen the worst of it in terms of bad runs of games. It’s really important that it’s not a negative atmosphere, that we have that growth mindset and not a negative mindset.
“Not ‘what are we doing here?’ but ‘how can we get better, how can we challenge ourselves individually and as a collective?’
“There’s no witch hunts going on, everyone knows that we’re all in it together. We have that growth mindset because we know how far we’ve come, we know that we can beat any team on our day. We’ve shown that this year.
“The last couple of games haven’t gone our way. We’re the only ones who are responsible for that.
“I think it’s just important that we have a challenge mindset and a growth mindset rather than beat ourselves up. Nobody is pointing fingers, people are looking at themselves which is great.”
With this season’s competition rules presently looking like only the top seven in the league, plus the winners of the Welsh conference, will qualify for Europe’s top competition, the consequences should Ulster not rediscover their groove are stark. Indeed, it would have seemed unfathomable until recently that Ulster could fall that far down the table but the second-half surge of the South Africans has altered the picture.
“It’s a new competition,” admitted O’Connor. “The South African teams are coming in hot and Glasgow are playing great rugby. We knew it was going to be tight at the top. Unfortunately, the results haven’t gone our way.
“But we’re coming into the business end and we’re looking forward to Edinburgh on Saturday, and Sharks obviously after that, to ensure we get to the play-offs.
“It’s out of our hands now whether that’s at home or away but we’re going for 10 points.”
Tomorrow’s opposition should certainly sharpen the focus. The side from the Scottish capital presently sit just two points and two places behind Ulster and, with only one game remaining after this weekend, the result will have huge bearing on play-off seedings.
Going back to the 2017/18 season when Ulster secured a bonus-point win in Murrayfield to greatly aid their Champions Cup qualification hopes for the next season, and including the 2020 PRO14 semi-final, the northern province have recent history of going over there and getting a result when they need it most.
This game, however, will be played in the DAM Health Stadium, next door to the national stadium, where Mike Blair’s side are yet to lose since their summer move.
“We’ve had really important games since the new year, every game has been massively important,” said O’Connor.
“They’re the ones you want to be involved in. You want to go away to Edinburgh when they’re playing really good rugby.
“They’ve a lot of internationals, a high standard of player, and they’re playing a lot differently to how they have in previous years under (former head coach Richard) Cockerill.
“They’re way more expansive now and that’s a big challenge but it’s good to get back over there and we have the knowledge that we’re capable of going over there and doing the business which helps us, helps a few of the younger guys as well.
“Going to Edinburgh in the past, we’ve gone over off the back of a couple of losses or going there needing to win and we’ve delivered the goods.
“We’re looking forward to the weekend and getting back on the horse.”