While Ulster’s players and management insist that the focus is entirely on Saturday’s lunchtime clash with Pool 1 leaders La Rochelle, it’s become clearer who will be replacing Christian Leali’ifano when the Wallaby’s short-term contract ends this month.
As the Irish Examiner reported, 2011 World Cup-winning out-half Stephen Donald is to join up with the squad in February, the 34-year-old expected to arrive in Belfast in time for the resumption of the Guinness PRO14 series. A former team-mate of Ulster head coach Jono Gibbes at Waikato’s Super Rugby outfit, the Chiefs, Donald is currently playing in Japan where the season is coming to a close.
Though there’ll be no official confirmation of Donald’s recruitment for some days, Ulster operations manager Bryn Cunningham has revealed that an overseas No.10 has been identified and that director of rugby Les Kiss is happy with the outcome.
With Leali’ifano’s successful stint coming to an end he’ll want to play a key role for the last time in Ulster colours at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday in a vital European tie with the French Top 14 title chasers. Flanker Chris Henry is fit again, and lock Kieran Treadwell is available, international winger Craig Gilroy is expected to feature, and the versatile South African Louis Ludik has recovered from a virus infection and is set to play in midfield.
He missed the New Year’s Day home win over Munster, and the thumping defeat by Leinster last weekend.
“It’s been tough, horrible in fact and though you want to play you know it is not right for the team,” says Ludik. “The doctor made a judgement call and the coaches went back to Darren Cave, and after his performance against Munster it’s easy to make that ‘call’ when you have back-up like that.”
Ludik shares the players’ determination to put the dreadful form of late behind them, and believes that it’s been basic errors which have “let too many teams off the hook too easily”.
“It’s small stuff that that we really have to break down, so often it happens in training where everyone is working so hard. But we have to get everything perfect in training and then take it on to the field. They have a massive side, the backs as well as the forwards are big guys. A lot of our boys didn’t know what to expect when we met in France in the autumn, but they showed what they’ve got and we have to show passion, work hard and let our supporters see how much it means to us,” says the 31-year-old.
Ludik is acutely aware of the criticism which has been directed at the team and director of rugby Kiss.
“The coaches take a lot of the pressure on the media side off us, but we take a lot of responsibility for the recent bad run. We want to go out and show the supporters what we’ve got, the pride we have in the jersey.
“We take all the bad stuff on the chin, and at the end of the day there are contracts on the line. We’re professionals and we always go out to do our best.
“If we can reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup that would be awesome, it’s something we haven’t done since I came here in 2014. It would help a lot, put confidence into the team and get the media and supporters all believing in the team again.
“To win, and give that confidence back would be great.”
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