AFTER a successful fortnight in Europe, it’s back to domestic action for Ulster as they begin the first of a trio of inter-pro games when they host Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium on St Stephen’s Day (5.15pm, live on BBC).
Leinster are next to visit Belfast on New Year’s Day, but first there will is a sense of a point to prove for Dan McFarland’s charges having lost out to the Westerners in Dublin back in October.
That 36-11 defeat marked the first reverse of the season and was a result of a below-par display that gave plenty of food for thought heading into the autumn internationals’ break.
Tweaks have been made since and they have been evidenced by impressive victories away at Leinster in the United Rugby Championship, plus on the road against Clermont in Europe followed by last weekend’s victory over Northampton that made it two wins from two in the Champions Cup after a second league reverse at Ospreys.
That loss saw Ulster drop to third in the table and leaves them needing a productive few weeks against their Irish rivals in what could be a pivotal period in the season.
“We are definitely making strides in some areas,” said Defence Coach, Jared Payne.
“We have been a lot better in our attack shape that we have been working on to give us multiple options. On Friday night, we scored a great try early on, so that was really pleasing to see.
“Some of our defensive work is also coming through, so we are making steps in the right direction.
“It’s easy during the week to say you are going do X, Y and Z, but when you get punched in the face in the game of rugby and get hit hard, things can change.
“We have definitely addressed how we navigate our way through the momentum and emotion of a game, good or bad.
“We put a few processes in place to help the guys and I think that worked petty well down in Clermont. In the third quarter when they came back at us pretty hard there was a bit of pressure on the lads and for them to navigate that space and come out on the right side was great.
“It’s going in the right direction, but there’s always going to be ups and downs, and I’m sure we’ll be tested pretty well this week against Connacht.”
Ulster will be without Stuart McCloskey (hamstring) and Iain Henderson (ankle) who both sustained injuries in Friday's Heineken Champions Cup home victory over Northampton Saints and their loss will be felt against a Connacht side that will be buoyed by that victory over Ulster earlier in the season as-well-as a hugely impressive demolition of Stade Francais in Europe a fortnight ago.
They have plenty of top-class players, but as it the case over the festive period, squad rotation could see them arrive in Belfast either fully-loaded or with some changes in personnel.
Either way, they will certainly provide a stern test and one that Payne says the Ulster players must be ready.
“I think they are class as a team at the minute,” he notes.
“They are very dangerous, very aggressive in defence. They come forward and score tries from defence and put teams under pressure.
“In attack, they’ve always been a team with a lot of variety so I think they have grown massively as a team and are playing very well at the moment.
“They have a few nice little phase options and have (Jack) Carty who can pin you back in your own half, so they are a dangerous team at the moment.”
That defeat at the Aviva Stadium is still fresh in the memory, but it doesn’t mean that Ulster are solely focussing on revenge.
Yes, they are determined to produce a much better performance, but this season has all been about the process and making improvements across the board.
Game management and not switching off for periods has been one area that has been targeted and over the next few weeks, Ulster will be determined to leave any emotion at the door and just make sure they concentrate on each challenge that comes their way.
“There’s excitement every time you play rugby so it’s about channelling it the right way and making sure we turn up on Sunday ready to go,” Payne added.
“There are a few different motivators for us this week, so I’m sure the boys will adapt to them pretty well and enjoy Christmas, but at the same time be ready for Sunday.
“It’s not about not playing (switching off) but about playing smart at times and having a feel for where the game is going, what’s required and the guys have put a lot of time into understanding that we can play differently at certain times.
“There are going to be times when it hasn’t been as great as it has been, but that’s all part of it. It’s just nice to see them getting some sort of result for the work they’re putting in.
“There are going to be rocky parts and I know we’ll be well tested this weekend I’m excited to see where it goes against Connacht.”