Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Tyrone Howe: Job done, bring on the Tigers

Ulster's Craig Gilroy scored the fourth try against Scarlets

Away wins and bonus points are the golden tickets of Heineken Cup rugby. It has always been this way — while home victories are prerequisites, the extras and results further afield steer your level of ambition.

You would take them at any stage, but after rounds three and four you have a fair feel for your chances in the competition. Looking ahead to the final two rounds, you want destiny to lie in your own hands.

This last case would seem to apply to Ulster at the end of round four. Top of the group by two points — if Ulster can win the next two, they will go through.

However, rarely are things quite so simple and certainly not in the Heineken Cup.

Firstly, there is the far from simple task of going away to Clermont, and anyway the competition has thrown up enough twists and turns over the years to suggest that scenarios and permutations will probably still be under discussion in the final quarter over in France.

Even with a two-point cushion, Ulster have, by far, the toughest combination of matches — Tigers and Clermont.

These latter two teams have banker wins and potential bonus points against Aironi to be added to the mix.

Nonetheless, I am fully confident that Ulster will emerge from this Pool and qualify for the knockout stages. Whether this is as Pool winner or one of the best two runners up is far more difficult to call, and I suspect the latter is more likely.

Right back when the Pool was drawn out of the hat, it was a classic case of ‘there’s good news and there’s bad news’.

I always like to start with the negative and finish with the positive, so the toughness of the group was tempered by the fact that it contained the weakest team in the competition.

To be victorious at the top of the Pool would be incredibly difficult but it was conceivable that two qualifiers could emerge from the four sides due to the presence of Aironi.

Smart money would still be on Clermont to come through as Pool winners, but to have fourteen points and be top of the Pool at this stage is superb for Ulster.

Two professional jobs were done against Aironi. Bonus point victories were required and duly served up.

The opposition might have been limited, but you still have to rack up the points and dot down the tries.

There was an extended period in the second half on Saturday which had us all sweating, but the anxiety was put to bed by Craig Gilroy who scored that all-important fourth try.

The two bonus points secured in successive weeks mean that we all have our pens out.

Working off the assumption that Ulster will beat the Tigers at Ravenhill, 18 points is there or thereabouts for a potential second place qualification. Anything from Clermont will be literally a bonus and would consolidate this possibility.

Meanwhile, three of the Pools are rapidly being sewn up — Leinster, Munster and Saracens turned up the heat and grabbed their Pools by the scruff of the neck.

At the start of the tournament, Saracens would have been my outside bet to make a big impact. They might not produce Leinster-type rugby, but they are incredibly difficult to beat and have enormously gritty self-belief and unity of purpose.

The energy, pace and urgency of Joe Schmidt’s men produced a fabulously entertaining game against a poor Bath side, and Harlequins produced the performance of the tournament so far in Toulouse.

This has created the possibility that the most likely other Pool to produce two qualifiers is this last Pool Six.

It was another absorbing weekend of rugby with Irish rugby, once again, in rude health.

Home quarter finals beckon at the Aviva stadium and Thomond Park, and I can’t help wondering what the chances are of Ulster providing the opposition at one of these venues.

This possibility adds further spice to the upcoming interprovincials, where Ulster’s self-belief, as much as its rugby ability will be tested.

It is awful to wish time away, but I cannot wait for the Tigers visit to the Ravenhill den.

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