This international period represents Ulster’s most important in recent years as Conference B sees four teams battling it out for two spots in the Guinness PRO14 knockout rounds.

It’s safe to say Ulster got away with one against Benetton in their first match in this period, needing a penalty try in the last play of the game to salvage a draw, while they edged out the Ospreys thanks to a Stuart McCloskey try away from home. Dan McFarland spoke of the draw feeling like a loss but it didn’t hurt Ulster as much as anticipated thanks to Leinster defeating Scarlets and Edinburgh losing to Southern Kings.

I thought Ulster would be without Jordi Murphy, Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale and Rory Best for the majority of the tournament while the availability of John Cooney and Will Addison would depend on the fitness of players ahead of them in the pecking order. Instead, Henderson, Murphy and Cooney were all released for the Ospreys match and ultimately guided Ulster to a vital win.

You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who won’t admit that Ulster were second best in the contest against Benetton. While Nigel Owens was correct to award the penalty try, the Italian outfit will be very disappointed not to have come away from that match with all four points. Despite this, it was just another example of tightness of the group of players. We’re quickly seeing a side develop that can squeeze out victories when the chips are down which is always a good sign.

It was a different matter in the Ospreys match. Ulster were the better side by a distance as the hosts often struggled to break down the defensive line. I’d say Benetton are a better outfit than the Ospreys this season and that reflects in their recent form – Ulster consigned Ospreys to their fourth defeat in a trot in all competitions. As mentioned in the player ratings, Ulster’s accuracy was poor in the opposition 22m line, similar to the match between these sides at Kingspan last season.

Zebre and Dragons are the remaining two matches for Ulster in this period. Ulster have often come unstuck against Zebre in the past, losing to them last season. Hopefully the roar from the crowd will be enough to inspire Dan McFarland’s men to a victory. The Dragons however is a different preposition. Their form has picked up since the sacking of Bernard Jackman in December and couple this with the fact that Ulster haven’t won at Rodney Parade since March 2017, this match will be a banana skin.

Ulster Players to watch

Academy and sub academy players, Robert Baloucoune, Angus Kernohan, Eric O’Sullivan, Jonny Stewart, Michael Lowry, Matthew Dalton James Hume, Greg Jones and Adam McBurney have already seen a great deal of action this season.

Out of the aforementioned players, Eric O’Sullivan has established himself as Ulster’s first choice loose head prop having played 897 minutes in 19 appearances with only Kieran Treadwell making more appearances for Ulster. Up next is Lowry, Kernohan and Baloucoune with 560, 527 and 456 minutes respectively.

However over the next few games we’ll see more of Hume, Jones and McBurney. The latter seems to be winning the battle over John Andrew with the 25 year old being restricted to just 157 minutes of action this season however Andrew was on the bench for the trip to Ospreys.

Both James Hume and Greg Jones have impressed when given the chance. Hume has beat 19 defenders this season, seventh on Ulster’s list which is impressive considering he’s only played 449 minutes. He’s also looked assured in defence, pulling off a try saving tackle in clash with Benetton in Treviso.

Jones has gone under the radar compared to Lowry, Hume, Baloucoune and O’Sullivan. The 23-year-old, who played in the same Ireland U20 team as McBurney and Jacob Stockdale, has made six appearances this season with four coming off the bench. He’s an aggressive ball carrier and isn’t one to shy away from a tackle.

One player who gave Ulster an extra element in attack against Benetton was Rob Lyttle. The Banbridge man came off the bench to play 26 minutes and was the most threatening player on the pitch. He made 74 metres off seven carries, beat seven defenders and made two line breaks. I was surprised we didn’t see him earlier in the match against Ospreys as he would have had great success out wide.

Losing bonus points are key

It’s easy to forget that only Munster (4) and Leinster (2) have lost less league games this season than Ulster. However one cause for worry is the lack of bonus points on the board – they’ve the joint lowest number of bonus points (3) along with the Dragons.

A solitary losing bonus point was picked up in the home match against Connacht while try bonus points were secured against Cheetahs and Dragons. Looking at the closing fixtures, it’s unrealistic to expect Ulster to win all of them however if they can at least taking something from every match, I’d expect them to qualify for the knock stages.

It’s certainly been a nervy period for Ulster so far during the Six Nations, however I think six points from a possible ten is a decent return and Saturday’s match against Zebre represents a great chance at getting the full quota of five points which would seriously boost Ulster’s chances of a knockout berth.

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