It’s bring on Munster as title quest gathers momentum
Entering an interprovincial contest with their southern neighbours in the unusual position of favourites, Ulster more than delivered on the unfamiliar tag with a hugely committed showing at the Kingspan Stadium.
Having had their last four seasons conclude with a defeat to Leinster, the game represented not only a chance to seal Ulster's place in the PRO12 play-offs but also to all but mathematically end their all too familiar foe's interest in the competition.
With all that on the line, and in front of a stadium as loud as it has been all season, Ulster produced one of their more complete showings of the year and can now look ahead to the play-offs with real enthusiasm.
The effort, epitomised by a rampaging Iain Henderson, proved too much for a jaded Leinster to handle as tries from the blindside flanker and yet another from the in-form Craig Gilroy brought victory but it was the defensive effort over the final 70 minutes that will bring deserved praise.
For all the talk of Leinster's indifferent form and potential fatigue from last Sunday's European Champions Cup exit to Toulon, Matt O'Connor's men started with the intent requisite for their seemingly dire PRO12 position.
Wasps-bound Jimmy Goperth had already staked his side to a 3-0 lead when, after seven minutes, an Ulster line-out shot past the outstretched hand of Henderson and was gathered by a waiting Richardt Strauss.
Rugby league convert Ben Te'o was set away and was under the posts thanks to some poor first-up tackling, leaving little sign that Ulster were set to redress a run of five straight defeats at the hands of their neighbours.
From there, though, there would be no further concession and there was no more deserving man than Henderson to get Ulster back on their way.
The youngster, by now surely pressurising Peter O'Mahony for the Irish number six jersey, was everywhere and grabbed a warranted try to settle any building nerves.
While openings were few and far between, the boot of Ruan Pienaar edged Ulster level, in front, and further ahead before Gilroy made matters safe in the final 10 minutes.
Unchanged for the first time this season, and with as full a panel to choose from as he will have for the rest of the campaign, Neil Doak must feel that his team are rounding into form at the perfect time.
Discipline, a familiar bugbear of the coach this year, was much improved and indeed it was Leinster who fell foul of referee John Lacey's whistle with such frequency that they played for 20 minutes with only 14 men after both Sean O'Brien and then Rob Kearney were shown yellow cards.
Even with the game gone, Leinster came back in an attempt to win a scarcely useful bonus point but Ulster did not creak.
Combine such defensive solidity with an ability to stay on the right side of referees going forward and there can be little doubt that Ulster will be a real threat come the latter stages of May.
With Munster set to play, and expected to beat, Treviso today, the Kingspan clash with Anthony Foley's men in two weeks now looms ever larger.
Much of the season will surely hinge on the securing of a home semi-final and therefore a win becomes of paramount importance.
With Glasgow to come in the concluding round, points will be at a premium and there will be little hope going into the 22nd game if Ulster are chasing Munster, but with a perfect home record in the league there is surely much cause for optimism that another interpro win is very much within their reach.
Every time Ulster have neared a trophy in their recent renaissance, it has been Leinster who provided an insurmountable roadblock.
With that familiar foe now seemingly out of the equation, Doak's men must surely feel that they are one step closer to lifting that elusive piece of silverware.