Ulster Rugby's view now clear
Treviso 3 Ulster 35: Ulster's second successive bonus point victory over Benetton Treviso means that when they return to Heineken Cup action, hosting Montpellier on January 11, it will be as the team in pole position.
With 18 points after four rounds they are the best placed than of all the 24 runners and qualification for the last eight – and, crucially, a home tie – is very much on.
Saturday's 35-3 triumph at Stadio Monigo saw Ulster complete part two of this particular Italian job and although the nature of their win was very different to the 48-0 rout of the same opponents a week earlier in Belfast, it certainly was no less pleasing.
Indeed, this probably gave them even greater satisfaction in that it was achieved in horrible conditions at a venue where they had struggled in the not too distant past.
At 3-3 after 38 minutes of play often obliterated by the fog which at this time of year is common in the foothills of the Alps, nobody at Stadio Monigo was thinking in terms of a bonus-point win for the guests – and that includes the guests themselves.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe and captain Johann Muller admitted the prospect had not even entered their thoughts.
But in the two minutes before the break a moment of magic by man of the match Jared Payne enabled Luke Marshall to add another try to the brace he had bagged against Treviso a week earlier at Ravenhill. Then right on the interval whistle, Paddy Jackson added a penalty.
"Even at 11-3 at half-time the bonus point was the furthest thing from my mind. If we'd kicked a couple more penalties and walked out of here at 17-3 or 20-6, I would have been more than happy," Anscombe admitted.
Muller revealed it had exceeded expectations, saying: "With 20 minutes to go we didn't even think about a bonus point. We basically just wanted to get the win and get out of here."
The turning point came when Treviso had Brendan Williams yellow-carded by English referee Greg Garner, following which Luke McLean earned himself 10 minutes in the sin bin.
Muller confirmed that that had changed things dramatically. He said: "Obviously when they were reduced to 14 men and then 13 men for those couple of minutes that was our opportunity to go for it.
"When we scored two tries in quick succession – Craig Gilroy and Robbie Diack in the 62nd and 68th minutes respectively, with Jackson converting both – we knew there was a possibility of a bonus point try and to get over in the 78th minute (via Payne) was a great effort from everybody."
Once again Payne was outstanding. The New Zealander is a quite magnificent footballer who appears to be moving in slow motion. The fact that he is able to glide past people so effortlessly game after game confirms that his apparent lack of speed is an optical illusion.
This time next year Payne will be eligible for Ireland; now there's a thought to delight all Irish supporters. Fellow-Aucklander Anscombe's post-match verdict on the gifted Kiwi was: "He's a class player, isn't he? He does special things.
"We couldn't see that first try before half-time but since then we've seen what he did. And then he touched down one himself. He's a special player and we're lucky we have someone of that calibre out there."
Marshall, the modest beneficiary of Payne's work and vision in the creation of his 38th minute score, said: "It came to Jared on the blindside and we were looking at going through the hands, but the defence closed in so he went for the half-break. He managed to put the chip in and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and got over."
Asked how difficult it had been to play in fog which at times meant that those watching could not see what was happening on the pitch, Marshall said: "Handling wasn't too bad, but any time kicks went up into the air we lost them for a bit.
"You saw them going up but then you lost them up there and you had to sort of guess where they were going to come down. But it wasn't too bad in general play."
Muller echoed the 22-year-old Ireland midfielder's views on the weather.
"It was actually no problem on the field. I think from a cameraman's and a TV point of view it was probably not great, but I never felt on the field that I couldn't see the ball or that I was worried about the fog or anything like that.
"I could see everything perfectly – and my eyesight isn't that good!" Muller smiled.
But Ulster's coach revealed that he had misgivings when he arrived at fog-shrouded Stadio Monigo at lunch-time on Saturday. "I didn't know what extremes they would go to, I didn't know what they would deem to be unplayable," Anscombe said.
Once again the coach highlighted the contribution of Ulster's 21-year-old outside-half who kicked three out of four conversions and three out of four penalties to finish with 15 of his side's 35 points.
"I thought Paddy Jackson controlled things well. He's really shown a maturity in his game and he and Roo (Ruan Pienaar) together is starting to become a special combination," said Anscombe.
With Ulster's two remaining Pool five games being at home against Montpellier and away to Leicester, skipper Muller said: "After four rounds we couldn't be healthier.
"But I still believe it will come down to the last game against Leicester. I think that will decide our pool."