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'This is totally different - we have not experienced these conditions in a couple of years'

Ulster are in South Africa this week for the first of two URC games – but they don’t just want to take in the sights.

Image: Tom Maher/INPHO

ULSTER HEAD COACH Dan McFarland admits finding that sweet spot between focusing on the job at hand and enjoying the experience is the key for their upcoming South African double-header.

The province are currently in Cape Town preparing for their first game against the DHL Stormers on Saturday before they switch base to Pretoria ahead of a meeting with former flanker Marcell Coetzee and his Vodacom Bulls a week later.

Sitting second in the United Rugby Championship standings and knowing that home advantage through the knockout stages is in their own control, there is an awareness that Ulster haven’t travelled to the southern hemisphere just to take in the sights.

But, at the same time, McFarland doesn’t want them to insulate themselves so much that they don’t enjoy the privileged position they are in. As such, it wasn’t surprising to see the players head down to the beach on Tuesday morning for a bit of warm weather skills training.

“There are two elements to it. The first is it’s a great experience. The URC is a great league for the fact that you do get to experience different countries, different rugby cultures, different places,” explains the head coach.

“Being able to come to South Africa and play in South Africa is brilliant for anyone. Even to experience places like Cape Town, Pretoria, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth where we’ve been before, that’s terrific in itself. You don’t want to miss out on that.

dan-mcfarland-speaks-to-the-media-after-the-game Ulster coach, Dan McFarland. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

“It’s not all head down just in a total rugby bubble, we work it that when we’re not training or we’re not prepping to train, you’re free to experience those cultures that we’re in. That sounds like I’m giving permission but it isn’t, you’re just here.

“But the focus is on when the job is on, the job is on. On the other side, let’s make sure we live our lives.”

Getting to do that beach training is one aspect of that. While they could head up to Portstewart Strand to do likewise while back at home, chances are they wouldn’t quite have the same experience as on the Cape Town coast for a multitude of reasons.

That in itself, though, is a reflection of how much the province will have to focus in their preparations for these two games, and you need look no further than the other games played by northern hemisphere sides in South Africa in recent weeks – particularly Munster – to see how much the intense heat can play a factor.

“Training’s a little different because it’s very hot, so you have to manage your ammo, you can’t be out in the sun too long, but you’ve also got to try and acclimatise. It does make it a lot more difficult,” acknowledges McFarland. 

billy-burns-and-gareth-milasinovich-shake-hands-after-the-match Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

“You’ve seen that in the games over the last number of weeks. Sides have definitely struggled with the heat, you can see that, and I don’t just mean the northern hemisphere sides coming up, the South African sides don’t find it easy to play 80 minutes of rugby in that heat. But it’s very different to us. There is an acclimatisation to it.

“But all-in-all, everything we usually do in a week you still have to tick off. Just because you’re away doesn’t mean that you don’t do it. You still tick everything off, otherwise you’ll be in trouble, and it’s challenging enough without any extra problems.”

Acclimatising to the two new teams is another hurdle to navigate as well, this the first time Ulster have come up against either the Stormers or Bulls either home or away – though it is a challenge that excites McFarland.

“It’s a brand new mountain for us to climb. It’s not like Leinster where you can be certain what to expect. You prep for them a number of times, you know the kind of team they are, and you’re used to it,” he adds.

“This is totally different. We haven’t experienced the conditions in the last couple of years and we’ve never played the Stormers before.”

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Perhaps the most notable player to travel to South Africa as part of the 33-man Ulster squad is centre Luke Marshall, who hasn’t played since November 2020 due to a knee injury but has recovered enough to take his place on the plane and looks set to play some part in one of the two games.

 

luke-marshall-scores-a-try Marshall is fit again after a lengthy absence Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

The former Ireland international has been dogged by injuries throughout his career that have led to multiple lengthy stints on the sidelines, and since his latest injury has seen James Hume earn an international call-up alongside the ever-reliable Stuart McCloskey, while Stewart Moore and Angus Curtis have impressed, too.

But despite persistent questions over whether retirement was on the cards, the 31-year-old has battled his way back into the reckoning once more and McFarland couldn’t hide his delight at being able to bring Marshall on tour, describing the centre as a ‘spiritual leader’ within the squad.

“He’s a competitor,” insisted the Englishman, who is also able to call upon seven of his eight Ireland internationals, the only exception being winger Robert Baloucoune.

“One of the first things that I remember when I was appointed Ulster coach is watching Ulster playing Ospreys in that play-off at Kingspan to get into the Champions Cup for the 2018-19 season. Those play-off games are tricky, nobody wants to be finishing the league and then having to play in those games.

“But there was one incident where Andy Warwick worked back to make a tap tackle to slow down their attack, they attacked down the side again and Lukey Marshall and two other lads were steaming across the field and diving across to smash the Ospreys guy into touch.

“Lukey did his ACL in that tackle, but that epitomises the sorta fella he is, laying everything on the line to make sure he gives the best possible effort that he can. It’s great to have him back.
“The talk of the talent and the young lads in the back line, it’s a well-worn subject at this stage. To me, now, those guys are going to battle it out. Every single one of them wants to start for this province but the standard is so high that they have to be really exceptional to really do that, and that’s an enviable position to be in.”

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