Ulster's Heineken Cup survival hopes hang on a slender thread which will be severed in the event of them failing to beat fellow-hopefuls Edinburgh tonight at Ravenhill.
The term ‘must win’ is over-used in sporting circles. On this occasion, however, that is no exaggeration. If they are to have any chance of qualifying for the last eight of European club rugby’s premier competition, tonight Ulster must emerge triumphant.
Forget all the supposedly complex maths, the figure crunching and the possible permutations. The bottom line is that Ulster have to win, end of story.
In the injury-enforced absence of open side Willie Faloon, coach Brian McLaughlin will be looking for a big performance from David Pollock who has the task of dealing with the threat posed by Edinburgh stand-off, Phil Godman, whose drop goal on the occasion of the Scots’ last Ravenhill visit ultimately proved to be the difference between the sides.
With so much at stake, tonight’s showdown promises to be painfully tight and nervewrackingly tense.
Edinburgh have won each of the rivals’ two encounters this season, by painfully narrow margins. At Ravenhill in the Magners League on September 18 it finished 16-13.
It was a night on which Edinburgh were there for the taking and Ulster failed to take them. It ought to have been a salutary lesson; if you are to beat this side you must put them to the sword with ruthless efficiency.
But when the sides clashed again a month later, this time in the Scottish capital and in the Heineken Cup, Ulster’s failure to kill off the Rob Moffatt-coached blackshirts once more proved to be their undoing.
Having led, they allowed themselves to be overhauled in the final quarter. They went down 17-13 as a result, emerging with a solitary bonus point when it might well have been with the four awarded to match-winners.
So there has been little between the sides, albeit that the little bit of meat on the bone has been Scottish flavoured on each occasion.
Ulster, with a smouldering sense of having scores to settle and wrongs to put right, will lack nothing in terms of motivation. In the circumstances, tonight could well be their night.
But if it is to be, they must put those past defeats behind them, forget any notion that the Scots — those unashamed Calvinists — are predestined to beat them, be ruthlessly clinical as and when chances come their way, particularly as they are unlikely to be plentiful, and display total discipline in the heat of what is going to be a fiercely-fought battle.
It is an all-Celtic battle in which a French referee, Christophe Berdos, will officiate while his fellow-countrymen at Stade Francais await the outcome. The Parisians kick-off at
2.35pm tomorrow against Bath in Paris. By the time they do so, they will have a good idea of what is required of them against their English visitors.
Ahead of that a packed Ravenhill will stand up for the Ulstermen in the hope of seeing something truly memorable unfold.
Ulster: J Smith, A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, S Danielli, I Humphreys, I Boss, T Court, N Brady, B Botha, D Tuohy, E O'Donoghue, S Ferris, D Pollock, C Henry [capt]. Replacements: A Kyriacou, B Young, D Fitzpatrick, R Caldwell, T Anderson, C Willis, N O'Connor, T Nagusa
Edinburgh: C Paterson [capt], J Thompson, B Cairns, J Houston, T Visser, P Godman, G Laidlaw, A Jacobsen, R Ford, D Young, S MacLeod, J Hamilton, S Newlands, A MacDonald, R Grant. Replacements: A Kelly, K Traynor, G Cross, C Hamilton, D Callam, R Samson, N De Luca, M Robertson
Referee: Christophe Berdos (France)