Johann Muller's crucial period proving to be a success
Back in early December, Ulster captain Johann Muller highlighted the importance of the then-coming seven weeks.
The potentially make or break programme to which he referred was back-to-back Heineken Cup dates with Benetton Treviso followed by a trio of RaboDirect PRO12 meetings with Zebre, Leinster and Munster before finishing with two European jousts against Montpellier at Ravenhill and Leicester Tigers at Welford Road.
Speaking at the time, Muller said: "The next seven weeks will define our season. If we are to keep on course we have to get out of our (Heineken Cup) pool and stay in the top four of the PRO12, so it's a really big push forward at this stage.
"If we can play some good rugby and keep fit as a squad then there's no reason why we can't have a really, really good seven weeks. Yes, it's going to test us. It's going to test our squad, it's going to test us from a coaching point of view and from a playing point of view.
"But if you aim to be the best in any competition, then you want to play against the best. That's what we will be doing in the next seven weeks – playing against the best."
Since Muller made his observations, Ulster have played five of those seven matches, winning four and losing one.
Significantly, they have remained on target despite having been without a number of top-bracket players. Injury has seen Ireland and Lions pair Rory Best and Tommy Bowe, sidelined throughout this crucial period.
Irish international openside Chris Henry missed both Heineken Cup games against Treviso, plus the PRO12 dates with Zebre and Leinster before finally making his comeback against Munster last Friday night.
Fellow Ireland forward Iain Henderson – equally adept in the second or back rows – also made his return in that game having been an absentee since suffering a hamstring tear against Edinburgh on November 22.
And No 8 Nick Williams made a timely comeback against Munster, joining the fray from the bench having finally recovered from the calf injury which has dogged him throughout the season to date.
The big Kiwi's unavailability had seen Roger Wilson and Robbie Diack forced to carry heavy burdens without bona fide back-up, something which initially worried Muller, who knew that injury to either would be a massive blow to Ulster's prospects.
Going into this crucial run, the captain had warned: "Robbie and Roger have been outstanding so far. The only thing is that the workload on them has been really tough. They're having to play week in, week out because of injuries to other guys and in a situation like that the body takes quite a beating."
To their credit, those on whose shoulders it fell to defend the fort until the cavalry arrived have done the job, bar the horrendous game against Leinster at the RDS. Now, with Henry, Henderson and Williams having ridden in over the horizon at the weekend, Ulster are in a better place.
Nevertheless, Muller urged caution in view of what happened last season when Ulster ended up empty-handed.
"Last year we started looking ahead a bit and the danger with that is that when you start looking ahead you forget about the right heres and the right nows," he pointed out.
"If you look after what you have to do right here and right now, the end goal will look after itself."