Peter Bills: Ulster can become a force if they learn Edinburgh lesson
In the end, it was the four point defeat to Edinburgh at Murrayfield last October, that sealed their fate.
Had Ulster managed to reverse that 17-13 defeat into a victory, they would this morning probably be contemplating a Heineken Cup quarter-final tie in April. On such fine balances are fortunes tilted.
But to become a serious force in the Heineken, you must go through such heartache.
Munster, arguably the most consistent and dangerous of opponents in this competition, took four years even to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
Thus, Ulster’s 28-10 win at Bath on Saturday which confirmed them as a side of growing quality and potential, should be viewed in that light.
But the lesson they will take from this year’s tournament must be that any slip-up, even the slightest below par performance, can return to haunt you in this increasingly competitive event.
Get it wrong for just one day, just one occasion and you can pay a high price.
It was always going to be tough for Ulster to beat Stade Francais in Paris. And besides, most teams slip up somewhere along the way . . . even Munster.
But what you cannot afford to do is lose the matches you really ought to be targeting as wins. That is what costs in the end.
There were lessons too to take even from Saturday’s victory at the Recreation Ground.
For Ulster to fail to score four tries against a Bath side reduced to 14 men after 32 minutes by Danny Grewcock’s sending off, was absurd.
Had Simon Danielli released Jamie Smith in the second half for a clear run to the line, they would have managed it. But Ulster needed better, more ruthless finishing than that.
The key question now is whether Ulster can enhance the quality of their squad for next season. For sure, they have some highly promising players emerging, some youngsters of real ability. Add on the proven class of others like Stephen Ferris, Rory Best, Andrew Trimble, BJ Botha and Chris Henry and you have the basis of a strong team.
But now is the time for others to learn from this experience and raise their own standards and expectations. No province can buy in every position; it is up to those in the positions to lift their horizons and return next year as better players. By collectively doing that, Ulster will be even more of a threat in next season’s tournament.
The return of Rory Best will help, although Nigel Brady had an outstanding game on Saturday. But Ulster must hold onto Stephen Ferris, too. His superb performances will make it likely that the wealthier French clubs, like Stade Toulouse and Stade Francais, will covet him.
But he remains crucial to Ulster’s future. He fully justified the man-of-the-match award on Saturday.