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Gilroy up for the final push as Ulster's big hitters return

 

By Michael Sadlier

At this time of the year the season can come with a certain staccato feel to it, but Ulster's recent watching brief is at an end for the next two weekends as the Guinness PRO12 is back in play.

And for play-off-chasing Ulster that means their penultimate regulation season home game on Friday night when Cardiff Blues are the visitors (kick-off 7.35pm).

Not the worst time then for Les Kiss to likely have Irish skipper Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Jared Payne all back on duty after their input into the Six Nations, as fourth-placed Ulster go in search of a seventh straight PRO12 victory.

And Andrew Trimble may also be in the frame to return after undergoing surgery on his hand fracture which he picked up at the start of last month after playing Treviso.

And though Kiss' in-form squad are locked in a battle with the Scarlets - who are three points behind and entertain Treviso on Saturday - to secure the last play-off spot, winger Craig Gilroy believes that the province can harbour realistic ambitions of aiming higher than a fourth-place finish.

"We're in the top four now and we want to stay there and push on to hopefully get something from this season," said the 26-year-old, who has scored twice in as many games for Ulster.

"Third is reachable now (the Ospreys are just three in front, though the Welsh region will now be totally focused on the league as their interest in the European Challenge Cup ended last weekend).

"Ultimately, of course, we want a home semi-final (from a top-two finish) and statistically going away for a semi is where guys lose out (no side has ever won an away play-off).

"But if we can't get a home semi we'll be happy enough just to take a qualifying spot as, a few months ago, people wouldn't have backed us even to do that."

And with pressure in Kiss' squad for back three places certainly not decreasing, Gilroy -who was unluckily yellow-carded last time out at the Dragons - is determined to stay in the starting side.

"I always want to play no matter who is fit and I think I can offer something good in attack," said the player who bagged a hat-trick in his sole Six Nations appearance against Italy.

But after this weekend, the challenge certainly steepens for Ulster as they travel to second-placed Munster the week before the European semi-finals - when the southern province may be distracted at having to meet champions Saracens at the Aviva - interrupt the flow of league action again.

With four rounds of PRO12 games to go before the play-offs, Ulster will be going all out to get another win on Friday against a Blues side four places below them and already out of the running to make the knockout stages.

And though the Blues still retain faint hopes of a top-six finish and Champions Cup rugby for next season - incidentally, Connacht's defeat at Zebre has guaranteed Ulster a Champions Cup place for next season - Saturday's exit from Europe's Challenge Cup to Gloucester will have done little for the Welsh region's morale.

"I'm looking forward to a good run-in," added Gilroy.

So are Ulster.

Belfast Telegraph

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