Ulster must beat Leinster on Friday night (7.05) at Ravenhill if they are to have any chance to making the RaboDirect PRO12 play-offs.
It could turn out to be a dress-rehearsal for something much bigger, for with both provinces through to the last four of Heineken Cup and having avoided one another in the draw they may be lining out in the Twickenham final on Saturday, May 19.
But Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin insists that will not be part of his thinking this weekend.
As far as he is concerned the hope of a PRO12 play-off place is still alive, albeit on a life-support machine following Saturday evening’s 22-16 defeat by Connacht in Galway.
And while there is hope, Ulster will continue to believe and fight.
Losing at The Sportsground wasn’t the ideal start to a run-in which paired Ulster with Connacht, Leinster and Munster in their final three PRO12 fixtures.
A trio of inter-pros — with a Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh squeezed in between the last two of them —makes for a particularly testing examination of Ulster’s mental as well as physical toughness in the latter stages of what already has been a gruelling 2011/12.
“Next up is Friday night’s game against Leinster so the Heineken Cup semi-final isn’t an issue at this stage,” McLaughlin insists.
“From the start of the season a place in the PRO12 play-offs has been a goal for us and that is still the case.
“We’ll start thinking about Edinburgh after Friday night’s game, but not until then. Yes, that defeat by Connacht has made things a bit more difficult for us, but we haven’t given up on a place in the top four the PRO12. As far as we are concerned that’s still within reach.”
Chris Henry agrees with his coach. But as he sees it, beating Leinster is about more than keeping PRO12 aspirations alive; it would also send Ulster into their April 28 meeting with Edinburgh in exactly the right frame of mind.
“Winning this Friday undoubtedly would help our preparations for the Heineken Cup semi-final,” Henry says.
“When we perform well we win, so first and foremost this match against Leinster is about the level of performance we produce.”
The facts, figures and the table spell out what is needed; Ulster are one of five clubs — Ospreys, Munster, Glasgow and Scarlets are the others — in the hunt for three PRO12 play-off places, Leinster having already placed themselves beyond the reach of the chasing pack with two matches to spare.
Any result other than an Ulster victory on Friday night
would mean the end of their challenge on that front and even victory would not guarantee it. Almost certainly they would also be required to beat Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday, May 5.
Were Ulster to finish fourth in the PRO12 — currently they are fifth — they could end up playing Leinster three times in four weeks at three different venues; at Ravenhill in the PRO12’s 22-match series this Friday night, at the RDS in that competition’s semi-finals on the weekend May 11-13 and, in the event of both reaching the Heineken Cup final, at Twickenham on May 19.
There are an awful lot of ifs and buts in that equation, of course and in the event of failing to see off what looks like being a Leinster side at or pretty close to full strength this weekend, Ulster can wave farewell to any PRO12 semi-final notions.
But, tellingly, Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip was highly respectful of Ulster yesterday.
“They’ve a great side and no matter what team they put out it’s going to be a tough ask for us to go up there,” the Ireland No 8 said.
“They’ve got a lot to play for. I think they’re in the mix for the final play-off spot for the semi-finals so they have a lot to play for.
“I know they love playing on Friday nights up there. Hopefully, we’ll get the weather and it’ll be a great night of rugby.”