PRO14; Glasgow Warriors v Ulster (Scotstoun, Friday, 7.35pm, live on Premier Sport and Eir Sport
HAVING been on the sidelines for five weeks, Ulster resume their PRO14 campaign this Friday night with a trip to Glasgow.

Dan McFarland’s side has had to bide its time for a return following the 24-12 defeat at Leinster on January 8 as their two European Champions Cup games were postponed due to Covid restrictions.

Ulster resturn from the break sitting in second place in Conference A, four points behind Leinster who are still to make the trip to Kingspan Stadium on Saturday, March 6, so it is very much all to play for as they get set to face into their final five games with top-spot and a place in the final very much in their grasp.

There is no margin for error, however, as it is likely they will require not only five victories but also with bonus points to push their Irish rivals into second place.

That defeat at the RDS last month is Ulster’s only defeat of their domestic campaign having won their opening 10 fixtures, so it is imperative they once again hit the ground running against a Glasgow side that has proven to be a thorn in the side in recent years.

“We spoke that if we want to finish top of our conference, there is no room for manoeuvre,” said McFarland during Monday’s press briefing ahead of the game.

“It’s great that this year - and Leinster are probably enjoying it too - that in the past the top of the conference has been sealed. This year there is a competition for it and we’re up there, fighting away. That position focusses the mind that there’s no room for manoeuvre, but that’s the beauty of sport that there is something on the line the whole time.

“We go to Glasgow this week and focus on them, focus on what they have to offer, understand that we’re playing our first game for five weeks and on an artificial surface. We’re playing a team that is well capable of producing top-quality rugby and are very dangerous.

“If we take our mind off what’s in front of us it becomes a difficult proposition. We’ve put ourselves in a good position to make an attempt sat the final, but it’s no more than that.”

Ulster will be without their international players this week, but Stuart McCloskey and Tom O’Toole have been released back to the province from Andy Farrell’s squad.

Jacob Stockdale remains out with a knee injury although McFarland reports that while he is not ready to return, Stockdale “is not too far away.”

Ulster’s Head Coach is also hopeful that Will Addison and Robert Baloucoune could see action before the end of the season, but Luke Marshall (knee), Jack McGrath (hip), David O’Connor (shoulder), Angus Curtis (knee) and Sean Reidy (shoulder) remain out.

Having been out of action for an extended period, there is a possibility that some cobwebs may have formed, but it may have also proved beneficial with tired bodies given the chance to rest and prepare for the final push that begins this Friday.

“You could say it’s not ideal having a five-week break and our reward for being the only team in Europe to fulfil all of our fixtures was to have this big break,” added McFarland.

“There is no doubt you can lose cohesion in that time, but you can also look at the positives. At the end of 18 games in under five months, we needed a break.”

It wasn’t all rest and relaxation during the break as Ulster did continue to stay sharp on the field and plan for next season off it with something of a resigning spree that saw 23 players pen new deals.

They also secured the signing of Fijian superstar Leone Nakarawa from Glasgow Warriors for the new campaign, a player who they will come up against on Friday evening. This is just one sub-plot to this game, but McFarland insists his players can’t get sidetracked and must expects a typically close examination from the Scottish club.

“Leone is obviously a game breaker and I know him from having coached at Glasgow,” he noted.

“It’s exciting when he is playing but there is so much more to that game. We know what Glasgow have been like over the last number of years.

“They are a very proud team and play with a lot of physicality. They play with a lot of intensity and play a slightly different way under Danny Wilson, but none of the intensity has been lost.

“They have some people in that team who bleed for their club like Peter Horne, Ryan Wilson and Rob Harley. I’m only naming three of the more senior guys there but they are very proud of the club they play for. It is a very intense place to go so we are really looking forward to a great challenge.”