Ulster Rugby: Top two finish is now the main goal
Now it's "bring on Munster" as Ulster's eyes are now firmly on the prize of bagging a home PRO12 semi-final with all the momentum and belief now on their side.
The first part of the plan was put in place last night after Ulster's hard-fought, but ultimately convincing, 26-10 win over neighbours Leinster guaranteed Neil Doak's squad a place in the top four play-offs.
The victory over Leinster - the side who have caused them so much heartache over recent seasons - even took Ulster top of the PRO12 table ahead of today's other games while, perhaps appropriately, also looks to have spelled the end of the southern province's season.
Ulster - who have yet to lose a PRO12 game at the Kingspan this season - now face Munster who are also challenging for them for a home semi in a fortnight's time with Doak's men in a good place to nail down another key victory.
After trailing Leinster 10-0, Ulster battled their way back to score an impressive 26 unanswered points through tries from man of the match Iain Henderson and the PRO12’s top try scorer Craig Gilroy plus 16 points from the boot of Ruan Pienaar.
“The boys played remarkably well in difficult conditions and we were 10 points down which wasn’t the ideal start we were looking for,” said Doak who is refusing to get carried away with two regulation games — after hosting Munster, Ulster finish up with a hugely difficult task at Glasgow who are also chasing a top two finish — remaining before the semi-finals.
“I’m delighted with the result but for us it’s one game at a time and we’re not going to look too far ahead,” the coach added.
Doak was impressed with his side’s commitment and said: “At times we were in decent control of the game, especially in the conditions.
“We’d talked about the second half and playing the corners and making Leinster have to run the length of the pitch,” he said referring to the visitors having to play two huge season-defining games in five days after their Champions Cup exit against Toulon.
“I thought it was outstanding work from the guys and we talked about squeezing Leinster and really putting the pressure on them and really forcing them to play.
“The five-day turnaround for them was always going to be a bit of a tough ask.
“We knew if we could keep them at bay they may not have the energy in their legs to run from 80 or 90 metres.”
Leinster’s cause was also undermined by losing Rob Kearney to a yellow card in the second half — which was their second of the game after Sean O’Brien’s first half binning for a tip tackle on Henderson — and in the Ireland player’s absence, Ulster really began to turn the screw.
Doak also praised his side’s defence which even refused to yield in the endgame when Andy Warwick was in the bin.
So, job done and the points bagged. Ulster are moving onwards and upwards.
Ulster Juniors have five of last season’s squad in action for their first game in the Inter-Provincial series, against Connacht at Westport this afternoon (2.30pm).
Flankers Jamie Johnson, captain Jamie Clegg, son of former Irish International Roger, scrum-half Ali Lockhart, prop Phil Whyte and winger Andy Hodgen will be the backbone of the team but there is plenty of youthful talent included.
One major absentee is Jason Morgan who is now the Head Coach.
“I feel we are stronger than last year. We have a good mix and the boys are confident and keen to get started,” Morgan commented.