IT will be a new challenge for Ulster on Friday night as one of South Africa’s new additions to the domestic schedule, Emirates Lions, will provide the opposition at Kingspan Stadium.

Dan McFarland’s men continued their perfect start to the season last Friday with ah bonus point win over Benetton and will be keen to push on further against the Johannesburg-based outfit that was competing in Super Rugby last term, before making the switch to the United Rugby Championship.

Ulster sit just behind Munster who lead the way at this early stage of the season on scoring difference, while Friday’s visitors have picked up just one win from three so far, but aside from a fairly wide loss to Scarlets in their second fixture, were very competitive against Glasgow at the weekend, going down 13-9.

South African sides are known for their physicality and that will almost certainly be a feature this Friday, with Defence Coach Jared Payne warning of the threat posed by the Lions.

“It’s nowhere near an easy victory for us,” said the former Ireland international.

“These are big boys with big forwards and have some dangerous backs. We could see against Glasgow there are a decent team and gave them a very good run for their money, so it will be a good challenge for us.

“Any time you go to South Africa it’s massively different. They are hard and fast grounds there, and they have fast athletes in the forwards and backs.

“It’s definitely a change and we’ve seen it when we go down there and then it’s a different type of rugby when they come up here, so it presents different challenges.

“They love the contact so you have to get you mentality and attitude right to not give them anything.

“If you start there then you give yourself a chance to look after your guys out wide.
“The initial focus is just on that ruck up and not give them the momentum and space they like because if they get it, they have some dangerous outside backs.”

Ulster have named an unchanged team to the one that defeated Benetton last Friday.
That means there is another opportunity for Nathan Doak to continue his impressive form that has put him in the conversation for an international call-up.

“I want him playing for Ulster as much as possible and playing as well as he can,” said Payne.

“If he gets down to Ireland (camp) that’s awesome and I’m sure he’ll learn something to bring back to us. It would be great for him if he gets the call-up, but I don’t pick the team.”

In their opening fixture of the season, a close win over Glasgow, Ulster shipped four tries, but since have conceded just one.

That meaner defence is another huge plus to take from their opening series of games, but Payne says there weren’t any huge changes made following the Glasgow win and their performances are just a result of trusting the process.

“We haven’t put any more effort in from one week to the other,” he confirmed.

“It’s always a fair bit of effort put in here and some weeks it goes your and others it doesn’t. There would have been a few (tries) we would have been disappointed with against Glasgow, but they are a very good team and took their chances. We put the same effort in every week and the lads stick at it.”

The hope this season is that Ulster can push on and claim a piece of silverware that has eluded them since 2007, but with the competition even greater this season, that will be a huge challenge.

However, the work continues to be put in behind the scenes and Payne says he is delighted with how the players have stepped up their efforts so far.

“What’s pleased me is the training off the pitch,” he said.

“Different guys are really stepping up into leadership roles in terms of how they drive the week and shape where the team is going throughout the week is what has impressed me most.

“The results have been great and I love those, but how the guys take ownership of the week and how they drive themselves and the others around them to put in performances has been awesome to see.”

After this Friday, Ulster will travel to the Aviva Stadium to face Connacht before a great in action until the end of November due to the autumn internationals.

It would be ideal heading into that break with a perfect record, but Payne insists nobody is looking past the challenge of the Lions this week.

“It would be perfect to open with five wins from five,” he agreed.

“As a coach, that would be outstanding but there are a fair few challenges coming up and this week to get over first and foremost, then we’ll just worry about where we are for the next week.”