HAVING had to pull the plug on their two inter-provincial fixtures over the festive period, Ulster will hope to get back in action when hit the road to Limerick on Saturday to face Munster at Thomond Park (kick-off 7.35pm, live on Premier Sport).

A high number of Covid cases in the squad meant they had to cancel the St Stephen’s Day clash at home to Connacht and then again against Leinster on New Year’s Day, but the hope is the worst has passed and Head Coach Dan McFarland says the squad is in a much better place this week than last.

Preventing the speed of the virus rather than reluctance to field a weakened team against their Irish rivals was the reason for both postponements and they came at the worst possible time after a hugely positive few weeks where Ulster had scored a mightily impressive win away to Clermont in the Champions Cup and then doubled down with a home victory against Northampton.

Two bumper home crowds over the Christmas holidays in derbies are always nights to look forward to for players and supporters alike, but the unexpected break in action will have been a little bit of a blow having built huge momentum.

However, that can not be used as an excuse this weekend according to McFarland who insists his players must put the recent misfortune to the side and pick up where they left off before Christmas.

“I think (it’s been) really frustrating,” he reflected on the past fortnight.

“From playing in Europe and getting good wins, coming into the inter-pros was really exciting in front of the fans here. We were really looking forward to that, so it’s frustrating, but it’s a funny old world where you take it in your stride and get on with it.

“The bottom line is that if players are getting sick, then we have to do everything we can to maker sure they get healthy. These things happen and we’ll move on.

“You do take a bit of a backward step, not in terms of your physical fitness and ability to run around, but any time you take time off from the to-and-fro of rugby, you do need to get back into it.

“We’ll address that this week and the players have been talking about that, saying it can’t be an excuse for us.

“As long as you are aware of that and get the requisite work in during the week, I’d be comfortable we’ll be prepared for the weekend.”

Thomond Park has been far from a happy hunting ground for Ulster who haven’t won at the venue in eight years and have suffered some crushing defeats in that time.

However, there will be a newfound confidence of being able to win tricky away games having got results in France and at the RDS when defeating Leinster earlier in the campaign.

“We went into this block of games knowing how tough is was going to be,” said McFarland of the inter-pro series that has ben reduced to just this weekend’s clash.

“So far we have probably won two of the toughest games on paper that we would have had all season, but this game coming up is right up there with that.

“Ulster haven’t won in Thomond Park since 2014; Munster have only lost two games this year. They’ve had some terrific wins.

“I thought their win over in Scarlets was exceptional and then that Wasps game, they played a lovely brand of rugby.”

It was not a dazzling display from Munster last weekend as their New Year’s Day game did go ahead, but were left smarting from a 10-8 defeat against Connacht at The Sportsground in was something of a bad-tempered affair.

James Hume is set to make his 50th appearance for Ulster when they take on Munster on Saturday evening

James Hume is set to make his 50th appearance for Ulster when they take on Munster on Saturday evening

McFarland commended the westerners for how they played that game and believes some of the areas Connacht dominated are the same as to what they will hope to do this weekend, but is expecting a Munster team determined to bounce back and ensure they don’t suffer back-to-back losses against Irish rivals.

“Last weekend, they could easily have won that game and had a period before half-time where they had a lot of pressure and had they scored, it could’ve changed the complexion of the game,” he noted.

“This is a big test and I expect they’ll have a couple of their big guns back this weekend and will be hurting from the loss.

“Connacht play a nice brand of rugby and did a really good job in pressurising Munster in terms of territory.

“They held a lot of possession in that game so it’s not rocket science - they are two core areas of the statistical measurement of a game where if you can control that, you are going to do a pretty good job.

“We would do it a bit differently than Connacht but ultimately, that is where a lot of our effort will be put.”