Tyrone Howe: Ulster and Leinster minds on other things
Defeat against Connacht has put a serious, if not fatal, dent in Ulster’s hopes of a top four finish in the RaboDirect PRO12 and a spot in the play-offs.
However, with a genuine chance of making it through to the Heineken Cup final you might be forgiven for thinking ‘who cares?’
Yet, there are plenty of reasons why the players and coaches cannot afford to look too far ahead.
It has less to do with Ulster’s position in the domestic competition than the importance of sustaining the momentum and intensity of the last three months, keeping confidence high and heading to the Aviva Stadium to face Edinburgh in the semi-final in the best possible shape.
Leinster, of course, have exactly the same challenge, which makes this Friday’s fixture at Ravenhill so intriguing.
Both Joe Schmidt and Brian McLaughlin have to keep players sharp, on their toes, but crucially fit.
The risk factor is high as Paul Marshall’s injury last weekend proved.
With John Afoa removed from the XV to face Edinburgh in 10 days time, Ulster cannot afford to lose any more players.
Many people think that this will be a full-on contest between two full strength teams.
There’s not a chance of that happening. I fully expect that while the majority of the teams will feature first-choice players, others will be rested and those that do start may not play a full 80 minutes.
One individual I would wrap up in cotton wool is Stephen Ferris.
He is so important in terms of what he brings to the pitch, the rest of the team and what he symbolises — complete defiance. He needs to be on the pitch in Dublin.
It is an interesting one. Both teams clearly want to win, but this is a long way from a win at all costs mentality.
For this reason, I suspect that home advantage might count for a lot and even with Edinburgh looming large on the horizon, Ulster may just back up their win against Munster with another one, this time over the current Heineken Cup champions.