Ulster homing in on title triumph
If, as used to be the case, a league competition was just that and things were exactly as described on the figurative tin, Ulster would be 2012-13 RaboDirect PRO12 champions at this stage.
But for reasons which I have never quite understood, that changed in 2009-10 when the Celtic League opted to fall into line with what is done elsewhere in the modern-day rugby world which insists on a post-tournament metamorphosis whereby a league race suddenly becomes a knock-out cup.
That is a format under which the champions-proper do not always fare well. Just ask Leinster who finished top of the table in 2010 and 2012 only to be beaten in the play-off finals on both occasions. Clearly that is a scenario Ulster are keen to avoid for, having won more matches than any other side in this season's PRO12, they would be left with a very empty feeling were they to fail to complete the task now.
That task is to beat fourth-placed Scarlets in Friday night's semi-final at Ravenhill and then see off the winners of the second versus third clash – Leinster and Glasgow Warriors respectively – in the final at the RDS on May 25. If they are to do that, they will be required to play as they did in the second half against Cardiff Blues in the last of their 22 'league-stage' matches. Certainly they dare not under-perform in the manner they did in the opening 40 minutes of their most recent outing.
Coach Mark Anscombe, captain Johann Muller and two-try hero Andrew Trimble were unanimous on that count.
Commenting on the paucity of a first-half performance which saw his side turn round trailing 13-10, with Ruan Pienaar's personal haul – a converted try and a penalty – outweighed by a Dafydd Hewitt touchdown goaled by Rhys Patchell who also bagged a penalty and dropped a goal, Anscombe was frank.
"We had a pretty rusty first 40, but pulled it together in that second half. I would say that Wednesday was probably our best training session of the year, but when you saw the way we played in the first 40 you wouldn't have thought we'd had it," he mused.
"But we've got to enjoy tonight because it doesn't happen very often that you finish the league at the top. In many competitions the championship is won by that.
"We've got to be realistic and recognise that next week is a semi-final at home, which we wanted, but it's knock-out rugby so it's on the day. There are no second chances.
"You can't underestimate anyone; if you don't perform to your potential you can get tripped up."
Muller said: "We're where we want to be. We're at home at Ravenhill in front of a packed stadium and we're really looking forward to it. We need to be better than we were tonight – we all know that – and we'll put in the work this week to make sure that we get out of that game what we want to."
Trimble, whose second-half brace against Cardiff was augmented by a bonus-clinching try from Robbie Diack who, like Chris Henry was making his 100th Ulster appearance, said: "Tonight was just about getting the win and getting a home play-off, so I'm delighted."
Speaking from a personal perspective about his dozen touchdowns thus far in 2012-13 he said: "Twelve tries is the most I've ever got in any season. I'm delighted with that."
And asked as to his mood regarding what lies ahead he replied: "Very confident. I think we're in a great position. We've got Scarlets at Ravenhill, which is where we wanted them."
• Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has lashed out at Warren Gatland and his management team for not selecting Irish hooker Rory Best in the Lions squad. Anscombe said he could not believe that his fellow Kiwi did not include Best and feels that the Ulsterman lost out to Dylan Hartley, Tom Youngs and Richard Hibbard because he did not have anyone fighting his case.
"He should have been in the team. It is as simple as that, as far as I'm concerned," said Anscombe.
"Sometimes when you see teams like this selected you need someone in the room pushing your case and, unfortunately, he didn't have that.
"If you look at the selection of the team, you can see who was pushing players who are there. Having been in rooms where you select national teams and so forth, you need someone in there fighting your case and he didn't have someone in there, whereas a couple of other guys did."