MUNSTER 17, ULSTER 19
Few gave makeshift Ulster a chance against Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday night. But, having won 19-17, Mark Anscombe's side left for Belfast confident they can go to another Irish rugby bastion – Leinster's RDS home – and storm that, too, this coming Saturday evening.
After trailing 10-0 – an 11th minute penalty by Ian Keatley, who then converted Duncan Williams' try three minutes later – Ulster turned round all-square and then outscored their hosts in the second half.
Rotherham-bound James McKinney returned five out of five off the tee, converting half-back partner Michael Heaney's 16th minute try and then landing a penalty to tie the scores five minutes before half-time. And when his early second-half goal was surpassed by a Sean Dougall try to which Keatley added the extras, McKinney responded with two more penalties.
But his first of the night was preceded by the exit of No 8 Nick Williams a minute earlier.
"Nick's not looking too good," was Anscombe's description of Williams' knee injury. "I'd say he's gone for next week.
"Apart from that, Dan [Tuohy] and a few others are a bit sore. We needed to get them off as a precaution, but hopefully there will be no ill-effects or people not being available next week."
Highlighting the health of Ruan Pienaar (shoulder), Rory Best (ankle) and John Afoa (back), who have not played since Ulster's Heineken Cup exit, Anscombe revealed: "They all trained yesterday [Friday].
"But they're only doing certain things so we'll assess that and talk about it on Monday morning.
"We'll have a session on Monday afternoon and see how they are, but we're hopeful one or two of them will be back."
With Tom Court suspended, Callum Black can expect to be on duty against Leinster's all-international front row. Ditto Andrew Warwick who comes in with Afoa missing. Anscombe has no doubts as to that pair's ability.
"I thought the scrum was outstanding," he said after the Munster game.
"I would go as far as saying that Callum Black is the second-best scrummaging loose-head prop in Ireland.
"He's been superb for us all year. He came back last week after being out of action for four or five weeks. He had one man down in support of the scrum and he held our scrum up all day last week.
"He did the same again today – to the extent that we pushed them back a couple of times. Callum is just one of those guys who goes about his work, but I think he has been outstanding."
He was equally appreciative of Warwick.
"I can't say enough about that man," he enthused.
"He's a loose-head who has been impressive at training during the latter course of the year. He'd been scrummaging a lot early on against John Afoa and John's been really impressed by him.
"He just goes about his work; there's no complication about Andrew. And then, when the issue came up with three tight-heads gone last week, what do we do?
"It's just his determination and dogged attitude; that's why we considered him as a tight-head and two weeks in a row.... how the hell has he done that? You'd think he's a natural tight-head, you'd think he's played all his life there.
"So to have someone – a young fella in the Academy – that we can look forward to the rest of this year and next year as now being able to play comfortably on both sides of the scrum is a gem. I think we've found a little diamond in our bag."
Anscombe was loud in his praise of open-side Sean Doyle, too, albeit that he would have cost Ulster the match had JJ Hanrahan been able to nail the final-play penalty awarded against the flanker for a hand in the scrum on half-way.
"Sean Doyle, I thought, had an outstanding game," Anscombe said.
"He just got into them and started knocking them down. That gave the boys confidence and we started turning them over and winning a bit of ball."
With Munster away to Glasgow on Friday and Ulster heading for the RDS next day, Anscombe said: "They're going to be two great semi-finals and there's going to be two very good teams whose season finishes next week."