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Ulster are fired up for old rivals

By Niall Crozier

Twelve months ago Ulster finished top of the PRO12 table, three and five points ahead of Leinster and Glasgow Warriors respectively and a whopping 15 clear of fourth-placed Scarlets.

In keeping with the competition's format, Mark Anscombe's side then hosted the Llanelli-based Welsh outfit in the play-off semi-final, winning 28-17. The following night Leinster beat Glasgow 17-15 at the RDS.

Alas, with Ravenhill undergoing reconstruction this time last year, its then capacity – just under 11,000 – fell well short of the minimum 18,000 required to host a PRO12 final.

As a result, Ulster had been told well in advance to nominate an alternative 'home' venue at which to 'host' the final in the event of them qualifying for it.

With the RDS's capacity being 19,200 and because it was easily accessible to their supporters who would, in addition, be entitled to half of the tickets, Ulster chose Leinster's home ground.

At the time it was suggested that the nearby Aviva Stadium would have been a much better call, not least because when Ulster played Edinburgh there in the previous season's Heineken Cup semi-final, the overwhelming majority of that day's 45,147 spectators were there in support of the team then coached by Brian McLaughlin.

Clearly they would have had no problem filling 50 per cent of the 51,700 seats had last season's PRO12 final been staged at the Aviva Stadium.

However, the PRO12 organisers poured cold water on that idea, their reason being that with the identity of the finalists not known until just two weeks before the end-of-season showdown, that would not allow them sufficient time in which to prepare for an Aviva-hosted event.

Although it is not guaranteed at this point, it is highly probable that Ulster once again will be lining out at the RDS on May 16/17, this time for a semi-final outing.

Ominously, each season since the inception of the play-off format, Leinster have earned – and duly won – a home semi-final.

That run of annual, penultimate-round successes includes May 2011 when they beat Ulster 18-3 to book their place in the final against Munster who, remarkably, are the only side to have gone on to take the title after finishing first in the league.

Speaking after Friday night's 22-20 Ravenhill defeat by the defending champions, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe cited Zebre's unexpected victory over Ospreys 24 hours earlier in Parma as further proof of the PRO12's history of throwing up upsets.

"On their given day, most teams can tip someone up," he said.

"Others may say that's a weakness, but only a couple of weeks ago Ospreys tipped up Leinster, so I think it's a credit to the competition that those sorts of results happen.

"It requires teams to have depth in their squads and to make sure that they don't underestimate anyone. And that's going to be the case in the semi-finals. There's four top-class teams and any one of the four, I believe, is capable of winning it."

Captain Johann Muller was singing from the same song-sheet in the wake of 14-man Ulster's two-point defeat by Leinster, a losing bonus having been sufficient to ensure inclusion in the play-offs.

"To play against a side who have won the Heineken Cup three times in the last five years, have won the Amlin Cup and have won the PRO12, and to lose by two points against basically a full-strength Leinster side – and we had a couple of injuries as well – is a massive credit to the boys," he said.

As for what might follow this Saturday night's date with Munster in Limerick, the big South African mused: "It's one of those catch-22s; we can't get a home semi so who do you want to play – do you want Glasgow away, do you want to play Munster or do you want to play Leinster away?"

Then echoing coach Anscombe's views on the strength of the PRO12, Muller added: "People say it's a weak competition but I don't believe that for one second.

"There's a reason why there were three PRO12 sides in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and then one in the semi-final. Maybe it should have been two, but anyway....

"It shows the strength of this competition. It doesn't matter who you play; the top seed can lose to the bottom seed on any given day. That's the beauty of this competition from my point of view."

I would imagine that if he manages to help fourth-placed – and therefore bottom-seeded – Ulster create history by becoming the only side to win the PRO12 from that position, he will find any number of Ulster supporters sharing his view as to what constitutes a thing of beauty.

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