Ulster shaken after losing lead
In the countdown to Friday night's home date with Benetton Treviso, Mark Anscombe warned that the remnants of Ulster's lead at the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 could be wiped out if they failed to win.
They drew 29-29 and would have lost had the hitherto perfect Alberto di Bernardo been able to land the final-act touchline conversion of hat-trick hero Dean Budd's third try. As it was they were outscored by four tries to two.
Simultaneously, Glasgow Warriors were chalking up their fifth successive bonus point triumph and their seventh PRO12 victory in a row.
Thus the Ulster coach's prophetic words came true and now the seemingly unassailable 11-point lead they held going into the four matches during the Six Nations has disappeared.
One win, a draw and two narrow defeats – nine points all told – opened the door for others to storm through and Glasgow's warriors needed no second invitation.
The contrast over the period is stark; while Ulster under-performed, Gregor Townsend's team banked a maximum 20 out of 20. As a result, with five rounds remaining, they now lead by virtue of a superior for-against points differential, +183 to Ulster's +165.
Also disconcerting for the Ravenhill side has been the post-Christmas charge by Joe Schmidt's Leinster who, since losing to Ulster on December 21, have seen off Connacht, Edinburgh, Cardiff Blues, Treviso, Scarlets and Dragons.
Four of those six wins yielded try-scoring bonuses, as a result of which Leinster have hauled themselves right back into contention. They now trail the joint-leaders by just two points – and, crucially, both Glasgow and Ulster still have to go to the RDS.
Undoubtedly Ulster have suffered of late as a result of missing personnel, either through injury or international calls. But they cannot claim exclusivity to such problems. Nor can they use them to explain their dramatic dip in fortunes, because Glasgow and Leinster have had to contend with comparable difficulties, too.
Even Treviso had more than a dozen front-liners missing on Friday night where, on paper at least, Ulster appeared to have had enough in reserve to win.
But in a telling post-match comment Anscombe suggested otherwise by saying: "During the course of the year some guys have put their hand up from that fringe group. But it's also now taken its toll and some of them have been found out a little bit.
"Now when we look at our depth we're maybe not as strong in some positions as we think we are."
The unpalatable truth of the matter is that Ulster allowed themselves to be reeled back in having led 17-3 after little over half-an-hour.
After that they were outscored 26-12. And even when they recovered to lead 29-24 with two minutes remaining, the task of defending their slender advantage proved to be beyond them.
Anscombe told it like it was, admitting there had been problems which were self-inflicted rather than the result of some misfortune beyond Ulster's control. One of the failings he highlighted was indiscipline.
In that respect his upset at Iain Henderson is understandable, with the 21-year-old having picked up third yellow card of the season. Lewis Stevenson spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin, too, and during both men's absences Treviso scored and converted tries.
The nature of the scores Ulster conceded also angered the coach.
"The one just on half-time (first try) was poor. Then that charge-down kick (third try) was just ridiculous. That simply just to be put away.
"The last one, we took the ball into contact and turned it over. That's fundamental, that's responsibility," he bristled.
On the plus side, Paddy Jackson's place-kicking was a bonus with the out-half returning to the Ireland camp to prepare for Saturday's clash with France buoyed up after landing seven of his nine attempts in the course of a man of the match performance.
But the 21-year-old was not happy.
"The result is all that matters and it's not the one we wanted," said Jackson, who was critical of himself – no-one else was – for not preventing Budd's try after his charge-down of Ricky Andrew's clearance.