Morgan Treacy/INPHO The sides met at Kingspan Stadium last month.
# Deja Vu
Ulster striving for their best form against familiar opponents following Munster defeat
The province’s attack coach Dan Soper has been speaking about their preparations for Sunday’s Champions Cup meeting with the Northampton Saints.

HAVING COMING UP against the Northampton Saints twice in the last seven months, there’s a sense of deja vu for Ulster this week.

Both of those previous meetings have resulted in victories for the northern province, one in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals in April and one in the Champions Cup in December, so there are only good memories for Dan McFarland’s side to fall back on.

But, at the same time, there is a need to keep things fresh.

By now Chris Boyd will have his side well-drilled on what they can expect when the two teams clash at Franklin’s Gardens in their third Champions Cup tie on Sunday (3:15pm). After all, there’s only so much variation a team can have without completely departing from the norm.

That is the challenge facing McFarland and Co this week – finding a formula that both draws on the strengths of their two wins since April and equally that Northampton won’t be fully prepared for.

“There are parts that are a bit different this week but we have looked at the last game, how we prepped for the last game,” explains attack coach Dan Soper.

“We’ve looked at Northampton, who are an excellent team, and we’ve looked at the trends in how they play and things that we think that might have changed since the last time we played them. So we may make some small tweaks.

“But I think it’s also really important that we get our own house in order, particularly off the back of the weekend when we didn’t perform anywhere near the standard that we would have wanted to.

“Of course we look at Saints, but we looked at them not that long ago, so this week there is a real focus on ourselves. So my part in that is to try and add layers and keep improving what it is that we do, the things that are our game and try to get better in our game. That’s the main focus.”

ulsters-assistant-coach-dan-soper Ulster attack coach Dan Soper.

If there is a secondary focus stemming from Tuesday’s video review it will be to rediscover their pre-Christmas consistency following Saturday’s chastening inter-pro derby defeat to Munster at Thomond Park.

Painful enough that their eight-year drought in Limerick will extend another year, it was only exacerbated by the fact they had an extra man for 66 minutes of that tie after Simon Zebo’s red card and there is a feeling of going back to square one following those hugely impressive away wins at Leinster and Clermont.

You could use the Covid excuse given Ulster hadn’t played for two weeks prior to that game, but Soper insists they themselves aren’t. Instead, he concedes that they are still seeking that final ingredient that will help them recreate their best performances each week.

“That’s what every pro team, sportsman and sportswoman is striving for, to be at their best form every time,” he says.

I don’t disagree that we haven’t found that recipe yet, but we’re striving for it and we’re working pretty hard towards it. It’s part of the journey of learning. If there was a magic formula then everyone would have it.

“We have certain standards that we try to get to every week in terms of how we train and prepare. As the coaches, that’s what we drive: consistency in the standards at training, consistency in the detail we use to prepare the game.

“If we drive those standards of consistency in preparation during the week then hopefully that filters through into the weekend, but we haven’t quite found that formula yet.”

Soper also revealed they are “not particularly hopeful” that either John Cooney and James Hume will be available after both were withdrawn from the defeat to Munster with calf and hamstring injuries respectively.

Ireland wing Robert Baloucoune could return to the squad after taking part in training this week, however he would be the only significant returnee for Sunday’s game.

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