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Ulster's most painful night as Doak's men pay price

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 23/05/2015

Sting in the tail: DTH van der Merwe of Glasgow scores winning try against Ulster
Sting in the tail: DTH van der Merwe of Glasgow scores winning try against Ulster

With their 2014/15 season now in the books, Ulster must watch on next Saturday as a Pro12 final at the Kingspan Stadium takes place without them.

A campaign that started with such tumult, reached its nadir in a disappointing European tilt, and was handed an unexpected fillip in January when it was announced that the league's showpiece conclusion would be on home soil, ended in the most devastating of fashion but were the seeds of such disappointment planted far away from Scotstoun?

While Rory Best understandably bristled somewhat in his post-match interview at a couple of key decisions that went Glasgow's way - the front-row seemed bemused by George Clancy's call to ping them on the stroke of half-time while Niko Matawalu endeared himself to few with his reaction to the flailing arm of Ricky Lutton - Ulster knew that they were battling the odds before the contest even began.

The players had spent the previous week repeating the mantra that some day soon there will be an away winner in the Pro12's final four but it was not to be, even up against a below-par Glasgow, and Neil Doak's men will surely reflect that matters would have been very different had they been the side welcoming visitors.

While all teams no doubt rue games that needlessly got away, there were some key points wastefully dropped that prevented Ulster from staying in Belfast throughout the play-offs and making themselves favourites for a league title that has proved elusive since 2006.

With the dust still settling from a summer that saw Director of Rugby David Humphreys, head coach Mark Anscombe and a host of experienced stalwarts depart the scene, the loss away to Zebre in September proved a costly upset while later that autumn three points needlessly slipped away against Munster in Thomond Park.

A more recent reverse against the Dragons was another moment to forget and made the task of a home semi-final all the more difficult ahead of a testing run-in.

In the first-half of last night's defeat Ulster played some great rugby but, with the margin of error so thin when visiting the likes of Scotstoun, it just wasn't enough and only served to further highlight the great importance of finishing in the league's top two.

A lesson for next season must surely be to remember just how costly losses to the likes of Zebre and Dragons later became.

With such a heartbreaking end-game lingering in the memory, it will be a long summer for players and fans alike while, with next season's World Cup looming large, it will be some time before we see the likes of Rory Best, Ruan Pienaar, Tommy Bowe and Iain Henderson in Ulster white again.

Calvary is on the horizon but, with the arrival of All Black Charles Piutau having to wait until the summer of 2016, it will be the same core of players charged with ending the trophy drought next year.

The continued development of players such as Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Craig Gilroy this season, as well as the vast improvement in style evidenced over the campaign's final months, all offer reasons for optimism and greater fortune when it comes to injuries seems certain.

However, with so many frontline stars to miss time through the World Cup and later the Six Nations Championship, help must come from within given that all of Ulster's Non Irish Qualified spots are already occupied.

Recent additions have been hit or miss - for every Wiehahn Herbst, Franco van der Merwe and Louis Ludik this year there has been a new face that has not been up to scratch or barely featured - and supporters will be keen to see which bracket the likes of Paul Rowley, Peter Browne and Sam Windsor fall into.

In the meantime, as Ulster contemplate a party without a host, Glasgow await the victor of this afternoon's semi-final between Munster and Ospreys and it will be one of these three celebrating on the Kingspan turf next week.

Belfast Telegraph

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