Alan O’Connor says Ulster are ready for the challenge of Racing 9 as the top two teams in Pool 4 of the Heineken Champions Cup go head-to-head at Kingspan Stadium this Saturday (kick-off 3.15pm).
Both sides are intent on securing their places in the knockout stages of the competition, but it is Racing 92, beaten finalists in two of the past three seasons, who currently lead the way with 19 points, five ahead of Dan McFarland’s men.
Ulster are aware of the difficult task they face on Saturday afternoon, having been defeated 44-12 by the star-studded French side at the U Arena in Paris in October. They started the game well, scoring the first two tries, only to lose momentum and allow Racing back into the game as Finn Russell and Simon Zebo came to the fore.
However, Alan O’Connor points out that the French heavyweights will be facing a very different Ulster outfit in Belfast this weekend, having demonstrated great improvements over the last number of months.
“We have made some really big steps since we last faced Racing away. We actually did some good stuff in the first half hour of that game and then the game got away from us,” admitted the Dublin-born second row, who captained Ulster against Leinster last Saturday.
“We’re looking forward to turning up all guns blazing and ready to right the wrongs from that game in Paris. This is an ambitious young squad and our next step is to reach the quarter finals.”
Unfortunately for the Ulstermen, prop Kyle McCall sustained a significant hamstring injury during that 40-7 GUINNESS PRO14 defeat at Leinster and will see a surgeon this week for further opinion.
Teenage winger Angus Kernohan suffered a hamstring strain in the Leinster game and is expected to be unavailable until mid-February, while fellow Academy back Michael Lowry sustained a concussion and will follow the return-to-play protocols.
Meanwhile, O’Connor is hoping that the province can make home advantage count in Saturday’s crunch round 5 encounter, insisting that the return of a raft of experienced players to the starting line-up will make things difficult for Racing.
“We’re sitting in a good place in Europe so it’s in our hands. Racing are a good team but we back ourselves against any team at the Kingspan. The French teams don’t have a great record against us at home,” he noted.
“A lot of boys will be coming back into the team as well so that has given us a boost this week. It will be a good challenge – which we relish.”
All seated areas of the stadium for the Ulster v Racing 92 match are sold out, but there are some terrace tickets available at ulsterrugby.com/buytickets.