Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Ulster Rugby's heavy price after Saracens defeat

Ulster's Ruan Pienaar is emotional after losing the Heineken Cup quarter-final match to Saracens's at Ravenhill Stadium, Belfast
Ulster's Ruan Pienaar is emotional after losing the Heineken Cup quarter-final match to Saracens's at Ravenhill Stadium, Belfast

Ulster's Heineken Cup elimination may well have torpedoed their PRO12 hopes as well.

In addition to the money lost as a result of their heart-wrenching exit to Saracens, Ulster are counting the horrendous cost of Saturday night's exit in terms of injuries to half a dozen front-line troops.

OUT is Ireland hooker Rory Best with what Ulster described as being "a significant ankle sprain". Estimated length of absence? Six to eight weeks.

OUT is Springboks scrum-half Ruan Pienaar following a recurrence of the AC joint injury in his right shoulder. Time on the touchlines? "At least six weeks".

OUT is Ireland lock Dan Tuohy who fractured hand against Saracens, this after breaking his arm while playing against Wales in the Six Nations. He will have surgery this week and is not expected to play again until May.

OUT is back row forward Roger Wilson. Having a fractured thumb in Saturday night's battle, he too will be out until May.

OUT is Ireland wing Andrew Trimble who suffered concussion and must now follow the normal return to play protocols

OUT is former All Blacks tight-head John Afoa, victim of a back-disc injury. The Gloucester-bound 2011 World Cup winner is a non-starter for Friday night's inter-pro match against Connacht at Ravenhill.

OUT for a still-to-be-defined period of suspension is full-back Jared Payne who was sent off in the opening minutes of the weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-final for a supposedly dangerous tackle on Saracens' Alex Goode.

So the damage inflicted on Ulster's season by that physically exhausting and mentally draining exit has been enormous, with their PRO12 prospects now seriously impaired.

Speaking after his side's 17-15 defeat by Saracens, coach Mark Anscombe said: "They're hurting. They gave everything out there; they emptied the tank and then some.

"To have earned a quarter-final place and not to progress – and the way it happened – it hurts. And you'd expect it to hurt because it means a lot to a lot of people who have worked their asses off to get to this situation.

"So that's the way it is – they're hurting and it's not easy to bounce back from this, but that's what we've got to do."

When he talked about the Ulster players' hurt, Anscombe was, of course referring to their emotional state, but now the full extent of their very literal physical pain is known too, Ulster really are going to have to do it the hard way if they are to win the PRO12.

They face the toughest run-in of those involved in what has become a five-horse race for the top four places. Leinster, Munster, Glasgow Warriors and Ospreys are the other runners, with all bar the Scots having played 18 of the 22 matches.

Glasgow's game in hand is a home date with Edinburgh. Originally scheduled for New Year's Day, that derby was postponed when torrential rain left Scotstoun unplayable.

It has now been rearranged for April 26, the date on which Ulster had hoped to be lining out against Clermont in the Heineken Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium.

Instead it's going to be an unplanned day off on which to reflect what might have been. Third-placed Ulster's run-in is three inter-pro battles plus a trip to Glasgow who trail them by four points but do have that match in hand.

While the top four qualify for play-off places it's the top two who will have home advantage in the semi-finals. Ulster's unexpected Arms Park defeat by Cardiff Blues 10 days ago has made their chances of landing a home match a lot slimmer.

Leinster, the holders, are in pole position with a five-point lead. They too bowed out of Europe at the weekend – in their case to defending champions Toulon – so their sights now are fixed on the PRO12 in the hope of giving captain Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll another trophy in their final match before retiring.

It remains to be seen whether or not Munster – currently second – become distracted by their April 27 Heineken Cup semi-final meeting with Toulon in Marseille.

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