THE first of two games on South African soil take place for Ulster on Saturday (1pm) when they take on the DHL Stormers, aiming to be the first northern hemisphere team to win in Cape Town this season.
Ulster currently sit in second place in the URC table, one point behind Leinster whom they defeated a fortnight back, but now enter a pivotal phase of the season with this mini-tour to South Africa set to have a big say in their domestic run-in.
A strong squad made the trip to South Africa with head coach Dan McFarland keen to reintegrate the internationals who have returned after the Six Nations, while their experience will be hugely important as Ulster get to grips with a different style of play over the next two weeks in hugely difficult conditions.
“It’s a new mountain for us to climb,” said McFarland.
“It’s not like playing Leinster in that you may not know exactly what to expect, you prep for them a number of times and know what kind of team they are.
“This is totally different and we have only experienced the conditions in the last number of years, but have never played the Stormers before.”
One of the players included is Luke Marshall who has returned after a nightmare run of injuries as a long-standing hip problem was quickly followed by an ACL and his return is seen as almost a new signing.
McFarland is delighted to see him back and admits it will need to be all hands on deck this weekend against a side that players typical South African rugby with powerful forwards and an exciting backline.
This may be the first time the clubs have met, but it doesn’t mean that Ulster are going in blind as the Stormers are littered with top players and current Springboks.
“We do a really good job to cover all the bases by watching them, analysing them and the specifics of what they give that is big power-running forwards, their maul is very good,” noted the Ulster head coach.
“I see Frans Malherbe might be back this week and Steven Kitshoff at the other side of the scrum. They have two, big powerful props and a tremendous number eight in Evan Roos and Deon Fourie at six has been stealing the ball on the ground for a number of years.
“Their forward pack is really good, the 10 and 15 kick the ball an incredibly long way. They have tremendous pace in the back three, so any kind of broken play becomes very dangerous.”
It will be something of a homecoming for Ulster’s Duane Vermeulen who spent six seasons at the Stormers and his know-how will be crucial, as will the rest of the internationals like Iain Henderson and Rob Herring who will have a huge role to play.
McFarland acknowledges that his side must be able to cope with the power game of the hosts this weekend and when the opportunities arise, be able to make the breaks while limiting the exciting Stormers’ backs when the game inevitably opens up.
“We’ve got a chunk of power ourselves,” McFarland countered.
“There is definitely a noticeable difference in the style of rugby when you are playing the South African sides and watching them over the last number of weeks when they have been at home, they have a big power game.
“They are able to hit you like a hammer, open up cracks and when the game becomes a little loose, they have a great amount of speed.
“It’s going to be interesting for us in these conditions to see if we are able to deal with it, but I would back our lads and they will give 110 per cent to achieve that.”