Saints boss Mallinder ready for challenge of much-improved Ulster

HAPPY DAY - Lee Dickson darts in to score a try in the Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Ulster at stadium:mk in 2011 (Picture: Linda Dawson)
HAPPY DAY - Lee Dickson darts in to score a try in the Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Ulster at stadium:mk in 2011 (Picture: Linda Dawson)
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Jim Mallinder believes Ulster have made big strides since Saints beat them in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals in 2011.

Northampton clinched a 23-13 win against the Ulstermen at stadium:mk two seasons ago to book their place in the last four.

They went on to reach the final, eventually losing to 33-22 to Leinster after surrendering a 22-6 half-time lead at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.

Ulster suffered the same fate last season, falling under the feet of Joe Schmidt’s side, but they are hotly-tipped to go one step further and win the competition this season.

Mallinder is aware of the threat this week’s opposition pose and he believes they improved since the clash in Milton Keynes two years ago.

“I think they have progressed,” said the Saints boss.

“They’ve changed their coaching setup a little bit, changed their team a little bit.

“They bring in quality players but they also develop players very well. The players who’ve come in are experienced, they give them real leadership qualities.

“Some of the younger players have really, really come on this year and we’ve seen some of those playing for Ireland and Ireland A and playing well for Ulster so we’ve got massive challenges all over the park on Friday night.”

Though Ulster have won all 12 of their games this season, spanning the Heineken Cup and the RaboDirect PRO12, they have failed to impress on a handful of occasions.

And Mallinder is giving his side every chance of making it an unlucky 13 for the Irish outfit on Friday.

He said: “We constantly look at opportunities. We’ve seen them over the last few weeks, but they’re very, very difficult.

“They’ve got a bit strong pack. We know Roger Wilson will be critical to that at No.8. He’s come back, he missed most of the start of the season but he’s back in form.

“The half-backs, they’ve got two quality players there, and they’ve got a real exciting backline who are very dangerous and love to score tries.

“There’s no discussion in terms of how difficult it’s going to be. Even when they’ve had a lot of players missing, which has been most recently with the international action, they’ve still been winning games.

“But they’re human. We’ve beaten them before. Not this season, but we have beaten them fairly recently and we know we can beat them again, but we’ve got to be at our very best.”