Magners League: Ulster inching closer to top four target
Now, at least, there is more clarity regarding the task ahead.
Munster’s last minute win at the Ospreys on Saturday night means that third-placed Ulster, even though they failed to get maximum points against Connacht, have now edged even closer to nailing down a place in the top four play-offs.
Though they will still be entirely focused on winning their final regulation game at the Dragons on Friday week, the situation has now altered and should they now not come out on top at Rodney Parade, a losing bonus point will still be enough to see Ulster through as fifth-placed Ospreys will not be able to overhaul them.
Should Ulster end up with a losing bonus point and the Ospreys score four tries in their final game at Aironi, both sides will finish on a total of 64 points but Ulster will get the nod on the basis that they will have won more games during the campaign – a tally which currently stands 14-11 in Ulster’s favour.
It’s certainly a slightly less fraught-looking situation than was the case in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s 27-16 arm-wrestle win over Connacht, but, after watching Ronan O’Gara’s 80th minute penalty de-rail the Ospreys, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin understandably maintained that not a huge amount has changed; a win is still all that matters for his squad.
“The Munster result was certainly a help for us, though from our point of view I’d have to be a bit selfish as I wanted them to deny the Ospreys a bonus point which would then have actually been enough for us to make it,” he said.
“We’re close and we are now in control of our own destiny, but we still have to focus on going to the Dragons to get a win which as I’ve said is a hugely difficult task.”
Should Ulster get through, the likelihood is that they will have an away semi-final against either Munster or Leinster though with Munster the only side guaranteed their place in the last four it is still unclear how it will pan out.
McLaughlin added: “There are still many permutations over what can still happen after the final games, but from our point of view it’s about getting that win at the Dragons and then seeing where we are.” The Ulster squad are due to reassemble on Thursday and will train again the following day before preparation begins in earnest next week for the Dragons’ clash.
On the injury front, there were no major problems after the Connacht game and McLaughlin is hopeful that both Tom Court and Declan Fitzpatrick will be back in the mix, though the news on BJ Botha’s medial ligament injury is less promising. As for Friday night, it was the now almost usual mix of the good and the ugly, as Ulster dug deep again to get their vital win.
Rory Best’s excellent try hinged on Ian Humphreys changing the angle of attack with a defence-splitting pass to Adam D’Arcy and the excellent Darren Cave’s offload giving Best his moment.
It was a great attacking play off a useful platform, but then came the other side to their game; the failure to gather the restart ultimately led to three points via an Ian Keatley drop goal and then only a last-ditch tackle by Cave on Fionn Carr saved the embarrassment of a Connacht length-of-the-field try.
At least Ulster had their own version with the counter-attack started by Ruan Pienaar’s quick tap with Humphreys hitting the space and putting D’Arcy clear.
At 14-3, Ulster should have pushed on but instead they struggled against an aggressive Connacht presence at the breakdown and then a lineout turnover resulted in Sean Cronin showing the watching Declan Kidney that he has pace to burn.
Suddenly, Connacht were a point adrift and Ulster had to again bludgeon their way to the win courtesy of two Humphreys penalties before he then provided the assist for Cave’s late score.
No bonus point, but now the top four is within touching distance.