WITH just two points separating the top four in the United Rugby Championship (URC) and Munster six off the top with a game in hand, already it is clear there will be little margin for error in the race to the playoffs.
Ulster currently top the standings and if the season were to end now, would go into the knockout stage as the number one seed, so to maintain that the points must keep rolling in.
That’s not to say it has been plain sailing this season as Dan McFarland’s side have won seven and lost three of their fixtures, a similar record to the teams around them, and on Sunday at Rodney Park (2pm, live on Premier Sports) they will aim to add to the win column when they enter the Dragons' den in Newport.
Ulster have won the four previous meetings between the clubs and will head to Wales confident they can maintain that run, but given the tight nature of the competition, nothing can taken for granted.
“You can’t afford to slip up,” insists Forwards Coach Roddy Grant.
“We have already lost three and the teams around us have lost two or three, so you’ve got to win each game as it’s so competitive.
“I think every game has been competitive, both top and bottom of the table. From what we’ve seen playing our games and watching the others unfold is that it’s a really competitive competition.”
Aside from Iain Henderson and Rob Herring, all the Ulster players involved in the Irish set-up have been made available this week.
Robert Baloucoune starts on the right wing, with James Hume also back from Ireland camp and comes into the midfield to partner Stuart McCloskey.
Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell are all selected in the forwards having been released back to Ulster and Grant expects Baloucoune - who starred in the win over Connacht a fortnight ago - plus the rest of those back from the international camp including Wales' Brad Roberts who is selected on the bench, to deliver a performance.
“It’s testament to them as professionals that they can change from one environment to the other and still have a performance," he noted.
“I think there is a lot of excitement about them as they have done really well when they have played in Europe and URC games.
“You want to have the ability to select who you want. The guys who have been in the Irish squad have been going well for Ulster so they are in good form.
“They can only control their performance for their club, which they have done so it’s good for them and good for us.”
There was further good news this week as it was confirmed Cormac Izuchukwu, Jordi Murphy, Tom Stewart, Matty Rea and Stewart Moore have all resumed full training following their respective injuries, and are available for selection.
Izuchukwu, Rea and Moore are named in the replacements for Sunday and Grant acknowledged that all will bolster the squad further and is especially delighted that Izuchukwu and Murphy are ready to get back on the field after a lengthy spell on the sidelines.
“Both are very exciting for the club and the forward pack,” he said.
“They are at different ends of their career in terms of experience so it is brilliant to have a very experienced player like Jordi and what he offers to the group with his leadership and how he plays – a great player.
“When Cormac did play last season, he was incredible: so raw and so much ability, so it’s exciting to get him back in.”