Ulster have strung together some encouraging results in recent weeks, adding an 18-10 RaboDirect PRO12 victory over Glasgow Warriors to an unbeaten three-match pre-season run. IrishRugby.ie’s Cóilín Duffy got the thoughts of Ulster defence coach Jonny Bell ahead of this weekend’s trip to the Ospreys.
IrishRugby.ie: Jonny, you got the season underway with a good home win over Glasgow Warriors. Any injury concerns in the squad as you approach Saturday’s clash with the Ospreys?
Jonny Bell: We’ve had a couple of bumps and bruises, but I don’t think there are any major injury concerns to be honest. Nick Williams took a couple of bangs to the thigh. He is hopefully okay. We just have a few bumps and bruises, but that seems to be all at the minute.
IR: It seems that things are going well at Ravenhill in the early part of the season. The mood in the squad must be good at present?
JB: The mood in the squad is very good. It’s been a good pre-season. There’s a lot of ambition, excitement and anticipation in the squad. We came through three tough pre-season games. Pre-season is the pre-season.
Our first game up was Glasgow and it was all about getting a result. Although we have plenty to work on we were pleased that we got the result. We are going to the Ospreys this weekend which is another different animal altogether. We have got to take another step up.
IR: Looking at that game at the Liberty Stadium. The Ospreys, as defending champions, will present a tough challenge and they will be hungry for a win after going down to the Benetton Treviso in their opener?
JB: You have got to face the best teams at some stage during the season. The league is based a bit on momentum and it’s important for us that we get some early momentum.
I think the Ospreys will be disappointed by their standards to have gone and lost to Treviso. Whereas in the past that would have been a very surprising result I think you have to respect the fact that Treviso are a tough team to beat, particularly at home with the weather conditions out there and the physiciality of the Treviso side.
Certainly all of that combined put the Ospreys under pressure. They’ll be smarting a bit from that, they’ll want to hit the ground running this weekend.
It’s their first home game as defending champions and they’ll want to put down a marker against us. We’ll have to make sure that we are mentally in the right place.
IR: As a set-up, the Ulster players, coaches and support staff have obviously put in a lot of work over the summer months to get things right for the start of a new campaign. Tell me how the summer went with a new head coach and new or returning players coming on board?
JB: You can either embrace change or you can fight it. I think our attitude has been very good. A new coach has come in and he is driven, he is motivated and he is excited that he wants to get working with the players.
We’ve had a number of players return. Jared Payne is back from injury and he is like a new player and a new signing. Nick Williams is in, Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson – there’s Ulstermen who have played for Ulster before, gone away and gained experience and are coming back.
There’s a huge amount of excitement and positivity. I can only compliment Mark (Anscombe), he has embraced that and created a very competitive environment.
If you look at Leinster, what drives them is the environment that Joe Schmidt and the staff have created there. It’s based on fighting for your place and fighting for the jersey.
I think everyone appreciates that you have got to earn the right to wear the jersey and that’s the sort of environment that Mark has pushed to try and create here.
IR: What is the message that Mark is putting forward in his first few weeks in charge?
JB: He has been trying to create an environment where players are challenged and they have to fight for the jersey and earn that. I think he has done that. He’s giving young guys an opportunity.
There’s nothing more frustrating for young players when they train exceptionally hard and they get to that door at the top level and it is slammed shut. I think the fact that there are opportunities for guys to come through is great and they have taken those opportunities with both hands.
Mark feels that then transfers on to players who are returning and who have to fight to get themselves back in. That in turn creates a competitive environment both in training and at match-time and that can only be good for the squad.
He’s really pushed that side of things. He has really, really pushed hard that our skill development is important to us and that we have the ability to play a fluent game. To be able to do that you must be able to catch, pass and offload. That’s always a continuous work on for us.
Obviously the physical side also and that we are mentally in the right place and that our attitude is first class and that we are not prepared to take a backward step. I think that physical nature is obviously a big part of the game and certainly a big part of New Zealand’s rugby mindset.
IR: What are the targets for Ulster in the early part of the season and up to the start of the Heineken Cup?
JB: Obviously we are subject to the Irish player management system so guys will be floated back in as and when they are available. It’s important for them. There’s a great excitement and anticipation among all of the players.
Those guys (the internationals) who aren’t available at the minute are champing at the bit to get their opportunity. It’s about slotting them in at the right time. Mark has firmly stated that guys will have to earn their right.
They’ll get their opportunity, but they have to earn the right to keep that jersey and I think that’s only a good thing. For me it’s important over the next number of weeks as players become available that we get the balance right and that these players get the opportunity to slot back in and that competitive environment is pushed to the limit.
IR: One player who looked determined to show well against Glasgow was debutant number 8 Nick Williams. He carried well and you must feel he can make a good impact throughout the season?
JB: He’s coming to us and needs to continually develop and get the fitness. That fitness will come with his playing of the game. He’s going to have a huge impact for us and as we filter the likes of Stephen (Ferris) and Chris Henry and guys like that back in it’s about finding the balance.
I think to have a very, very competitive squad you have got to have a very tough back row. I think we have strengthened that up. Sean Doyle is playing very well for us at the minute at 7 so he is making that competitive as well.
There’s a little bit of strength in depth now so Nick is going to play a big role for us and it’s just about how we balance all of that when everyone is fit.
IR: Returning to the match against the Ospreys. Certainly you would like an improved performance from last week, but winning in Swansea has proven difficult over the years. How are you approaching the game?
JB: We are going to the home of the defending champions so you have to respect that. They will be smarting after a loss against Treviso so they will really want to be hitting the ground running against us.
I think while we respect them we feel we want to go down (to Swansea) and get a result. We feel to do that we are going to have to work incredibly hard and going to have to get our mindset right.
You don’t win there easily and our track record will back that up. I also feel that if you go there with a mindset that it doesn’t really matter, then you might as well throw the game. It’s important that we get our mental aspect of this right and we go in with the right attitude.