Irish centre Luke Marshall sees the next three weeks as being crucial if Ulster are to make a bid for a home semi-final in the Guinness PRO12.
The 23-year-old made an impressive return to playing after a lay-off due to a knee ligament injury in mid-October for his club last weekend.
And although there was massive disappointment in losing 22-13 against Scarlets in the European Champions Cup, Marshall got a massive personal confidence boost when he was named the Kingspan Ulster Rugby, in association with the News Letter, player of round four – selected by the Ulster coaching staff.
“I would have traded it for a victory against Scarlets,” admitted Marshall with a smile before adding: “It was still nice to get it.
“It was a great confidence booster in some ways, especially for me in light of all the competition there is for the centre shirts,” added Marshall who again starts at inside centre against Ospreys on Saturday evening at the Liberty Stadium.
Ulster lacked discipline and a clincial edge in last week’s Euro game against Scarlets, the results leaving them with a slim, slim chance of making the knockout stages, although no one within the camp is giving up hope.
A full five match points from Toulon (away) and Leicester Tigers at home next month will be required – and even then it may not be enough if Ulster do not top the pool to get into the last eight.
For now the focus is firmly on the Guinness PRO12 and a massive three weeks against teams currently in the top half of the table.
Although Ospreys are in second place and Ulster fourth, they are both on 31 points so Saturday’s match is massive.
Since Ulster ended Ospreys’ unbeaten run in the PRO12 a month ago at the Kingspan Stadium, the Welsh region have not won, although they did draw 19-19 with Racing Metro in the European Cup.
After Saturday, Ulster entertain Connacht on Boxing Day and then play Leinster on January 3 in Dublin.
“It is a big period for us,” said Marshall. “It always is at this time of the year with the Irish derby games.
“The focus is on Ospreys and we want to try and back up what we did against them here a few weeks ago.
“Looking ahead the games against Connacht and Leinster are big as well.
“If we want to be looking at a home semi-final in the play-offs then we really need to be winning both of them.”
Ulster showed against Scarlets at home what they are capable of when securing a try scoring bonus point in the first of the back-to-back Euro pool matches.
“I think we maybe got a little bit impatient last weekend over there (in Llanelli). We did not make the most of our chances when we had then as compared to the previous week,” said Marshall.
“We maybe played too much rugby in the conditions maybe. But then the weather is supposd to be good this weekend, so we will have to look at it all.
“We know what we are capble of and it is matter of doing that out on the pitch.”
Ulster made two changes to the side which lost against Scarlets for Saturday’s game with Michael Allen starting on the wing in place of Craig Gilroy who is rested.
Andy Warwick, who signed a two year professional contract this week, will start at loosehead prop in place of Callum Black.
Stuart Olding has recovered from injury and is named on the bench with Sean Reidy and Peter Nelson also included on the replacements.