Ulster's rugby heroes had to dig deep on and off the Stadio Brianteo pitch on Saturday.
First they had to come to terms with news that coach Brian McLaughlin would be staying at home to be with his wife, Judith, who is awaiting important medical test results.
Then an injury picked up in the course of their 46-20 Heineken Cup win over Aironi left them having to make totally unexpected adjustments.
Replacement centre Paddy Jackson was in obvious distress as he was helped off after suffering a serious looking left-knee injury and the extent will be assessed today.
With the other two back-line substitutes — Paul Jackson and Stefan Terblanche — having already replaced Nevin Spence and Andrew Trimble, Ulster were forced to switch flanker Stephen Ferris to midfield and deploy back-up hooker Nigel Brady on the blindside.
The Heineken Cup Pool 4 leaders return to training until Thursday, by which stage Ulster will have a clearer picture of their coach’s circumstances and the extent of the midfield problem to be solved ahead of their Boxing Day Pro12 inter-pro derby with Leinster at the RDS.
They have been plagued by injuries to centres since the start of the season with Jackson the latest addition to a list which includes still-absent Paddy Wallace and big-money utility back signing Jared Payne who is out for the rest of the season.
Luke Marshall is another to have been sidelined, though he has now regained fitness. Even Spence, who played on Saturday, was a major doubt after suffering a rib injury against the Italians a week earlier in Belfast.
Director of Rugby David Humphreys deputised for McLaughlin in Monza and he — like everyone else in Ulster Rugby — will hope that tomorrow’s news for their coach is good and that he will be able to return to work on Thursday. with Ulster's Heineken Cup destiny now in their own hands.
That bonus point win over Aironi and Clermont’s 23-19 defeat by Leicester at Welford Road on Saturday afternoon has left them in the driving seat with two group-stage matches remaining.
Provided they can take what they need from those remaining Pool 4 fixtures Ulster, for the second year in a row, will be in the last eight of European club rugby’s premier competition.
First up is a Ravenhill date with Leicester — probably Friday, January 13 though that must still be confirmed — and then a trip to Clermont the following weekend.
Ulster’s outstanding first-half performance on Saturday put them on target with seventh and 38th minute touchdowns by Andrew Trimble, his 16th for Ulster in the Heineken Cup, and Tom Court, plus a 23rd minute penalty try, leaving them perfectly placed at the interval. Ian Humphreys added the three conversions and kicked a brace of penalties in the 16th and 34th minutes to open up a 27-3 lead.
Rory Best, man of the match John Afoa and Stephen Ferris had excelled in an outstanding display by the pack.
Behind, Ruan Pienaar, Darren Cave, Trimble and Adam D’Arcy stood out, prompting David Humphreys, to say: “The first half was as good as we have played this season. Every aspect of our game was pleasing, our set piece functioned well and we were patient when we had the ball.
“We took our chances when they came along which was very satisfying.”
It was an accurate assessment. Ulster handled well, kicked cleverly, ran great lines and off-loaded quality passes.
The Ulster scrum was rock-solid, with Court and Afoa roasting Lorenzo Romano and Fabio Ongaro. The line-out was far from perfect, though, with Ulster messing up three times on their own throw in that otherwise hugely impressive first half.
Their forward superiority was underlined early in the second quarter when, from a powerful rolling maul off a line-out, Aironi pulled it down at the cost of a penalty try.
Court’s score just before the break provided further proof of the pack’s power, the big loose-head forcing his way over after four highly-aggressive but fully-controlled phases. All very praiseworthy.
But the third quarter — during which Ulster attempted to take shortcuts by cutting back on their hard graft — was dominated by the hosts who upped their industry amd were rewarded with two tries in quick succession, the first a well-worked score by Sinoti Sinoti and the second a break-out interception by Roberto Quartaroli after Craig Gilroy became
caught up at the base of a ruck.
Mercifully that served to kick-start Ulster who had been way off the boil for half-an-hour.
Ian Humphreys exited, with Pienaar switching to fly-half to accommodate Paul Marshall’s introduction. As had been the case a week earlier, almost at once he made an impact by injecting much-needed pace to the proceedings. Thus Gilroy made amends for his 60th minute faux pas by applying the finish to a glorious back-line move in which another of the replacements, Stefan Terblanche, supplied the put-away pass. That banked the bonus.
But Aironi continued to try playing attacking rugby and Sinoti made their third try, George Biagi getting that. By this stage the match had become so loose that it was more like a game of sevens than a Heineken Cup fixture.
It was no surprise, therefore, when Robbie Diack — a 66th
minute entrant with Marshall — gobbled up a lax pass by Gabriel Pizarro as Aironi persisted with attempting to run everything.
Then, with the clock deep into the red, Adam Macklin went over in the corner for try number six, thereby matching the tally of January 2011, the previous occasion on which Ulster faced Aironi in the Heineken Cup on Italian soil.
Humphreys senior summed up: “For us, having suffered from a dip in form earlier in the season, it’s a huge credit to the players and management that we’ve been able to turn it around and are very competitive again.”