United Rugby Championship as competitive as it has ever been says Ulster's Craig Newby

Last week's win over Munster was Ulster's third from four games Picture: Brian Little
Last week's win over Munster was Ulster's third from four games Picture: Brian Little

ULSTER skills coach Craig Newby believes the improving standard of the United Rugby Championship will make it hard to win this season. 

Ulster haven’t won the league in 17 years, with the closest the Kingspan Stadium outfit have come to repeating that success being defeats in the 2013 and 2020 finals to Leinster. 

After only four rounds of this season’s league competition none of the 18 sides have won all their games with surprise package Benetton the only team yet to taste defeat, with  three wins and a draw. 

Ulster who have won three and lost one, sit fourth in the table a point behind the top three before they welcome the 12th place Lions to Belfast on Friday night. 

“It is a tremendously competitive league. It was nice to Zebre get their first win in a long time they are pushing teams really hard, Benetton are excellent and obviously the Irish teams are going to be very strong,” said former All Black Newby. 

“The Sharks are at the bottom, but their roster is excellent with the Springboks they have got, they have got South Africans who went to the World Cup final and aren’t back playing.” 

“It’s exciting and it is just another big challenge week by week, which is a cliché.” 

“We are in such an exciting league and there are so many teams fighting for that top-eight spot already and you can see how competitive it is. 

“We have the Lions this week they have had some very close losses and a really good win against the Scarlets last week.” 

Newby has been happy with Ulster’s early-season form. 

“Momentum is one of those funny things in sport where you can lose it so quickly and get it so quickly,” he said.

“We had a proud performance against Munster on Friday night, and we’re lucky enough to be here again on Friday night to back it up.

“We had an issue with the defence in the Zebre game but since then our defence has been on fire and the boys are making some real tough tackles and working really hard together, so we are in a good place.

“We are happy with where we are at but we are never just satisfied with the status quo we want to push forward.'' 

Despite being six points and eight places behind Ulster in the table, Newby isn’t underestimating the Johannesburg-based Lions. 

“The Lions have a big tough pack and some good skilful players and hopefully the crowd can bring us home,” he said. 

“The South Africans, you know what they bring in terms of their set piece stuff, they’ll bring physicality, they will love running hard, they love tackling hard and they are a very good jackaling side. 

“They are probably similar to Munster in terms of the breakdown that’s going to be a fight. 

“Their kicking game is a real strength, they have got some athletes in the backs that no-one else in the world has.” 

“They have different threats around the ball, hopefully we get our stuff right and hopefully that is good enough to combat what they give.”