Ulster know exactly what is required if they are to qualify for the Magners League play-off stage; they must win their remaining two matches — at home to Connacht on Friday night and away to the Dragons on May 6.
Even that would be no guarantee of inclusion, for if, as expected, Cardiff Blues beat Benetton Treviso tomorrow night in the Welsh capital, they will leapfrog both Ospreys and Ulster, forcing them down to fifth and fourth spots respectively.
That would leave Leinster, Cardiff, Ulster, Ospreys and Scarlets in the scrap for three places on 61, 60, 59, 58 and 52 points respectively, each having played 20 matches.
Munster, who have 75 points, cannot be caught. They are in the semi-finals in which they have earned themselves a home tie.
That is the reality, with Ulster supporters’ worst-case-scenario fear being that their side could end up dropping out of the top four right at the death.
They could do without injuries at this crucial juncture, but fate has not gone with them in this instance. Ulster will be without Irish international pair Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble for the remainder of the season after both suffered fractured thumbs against Leinster in Saturday night’s 34-26 defeat at the RDS and will undergo surgery in the next couple of days.
“Six weeks minimum, but likely to be longer,” was coach Brian McLaughlin’s prognosis at yesterday’s announcement of the squad to face Connacht on Friday (7.05).
And although BJ Botha was named in the 32-man group, in McLaughlin’s words “the likelihood is that he won’t be available this weekend” after picking up a knee injury in that same Ballsbridge beating.
He is due to have a MRI to assess the full extent of the damage. Fellow-prop Declan Fitzpatrick is also unavailable.
“As with all injuries this gives others a tremendous opportunity,” was the coach’s spin on affairs.
On the plus side, Tom Court was able to train yesterday after missing out against Leinster with what was described as “mild concussion”. Ulster now must wait to see if he suffers any reaction.
“He’ll be checked on in the morning and we’ll make a decision later in the week,” McLaughlin said yesterday.
Meanwhile, lock Johann Muller — another RDS absentee — “is fine” and the Ulster coach’s upbeat news on Stephen Ferris was that “he is making good progress and if we can do well in our next two games we would be very hopeful he would be available for the knock-out stages of the Magners League.”
“We have to win the last two games, no doubt about that,” McLaughlin admitted.
“The most important thing for us is to make sure that on Friday night at Ravenhill against Connacht we get the result we need. We’re not looking any further than that.”
His blunt assessment of last weekend’s Dublin defeat was: “The first 15 minutes we were just completely off the mark. What was disappointing was that we went from what was one of our best defensive displays of the season (against Northampton) to possibly our worst.
“We rested up well; we felt we were in a good place, but we didn’t play to our potential in any way, shape or form.”