Ulster facing battle for Heineken spot
Ulster's final Magners League clash of the campaign could be to decide whether they or Connacht qualify as the third Irish side in next season’s Heineken Cup.
By the time they come to Belfast in early May, the Westerners may be in a position to pip Ulster to a place.
As things stand, Ulster look like missing all of their pre-season targets.
Progression beyond the group stage of the Heineken Cup was a goal. But that one bit the dust in January when, following a magnificent away day victory over Bath in their final Pool 4 match, results elsewhere went against Brian McLaughlin’s side, denying them the consolation of an Amlin Cup spot.
After that, Ulster’s sights were fixed on their only remaining target — a top four Magners League place. That, too, has been derailed for while it is still mathematically possible, it would require a miraculous finale matched by an equally remarkable collapse by others further up the ladder.
True, they do have a game in hand — at home to top four spot-chasing Ospreys on Tuesday, April 13 — but even if they were to win that Ulster would have only 29 points, six shy of fourth-placed Glasgow Warriors.
And given that after the Ospreys game they must then travel to Glasgow and Edinburgh, that means a three-match run in which they will face opponents currently occupying third, fourth and fifth positions.
Last season Ulster finished eighth of the 10 runners, having amassed 36 points by virtue of winning seven of their 18 matches and picking up two try-scoring bonuses plus six losers’ extras in the process.
In 2008/09 they scored 298 points, conceded 331 and bagged 30 tries.
To date they have scored 210 points, conceded 239 and made 22 touchdowns. Currently they have two try-scoring bonus points, and just one losers’ extra giving them a tally of 25, some 11 short of last season’s total.
Ulster’s run-in: Cardiff Blues (h), Ospreys (h), Glasgow (a), Edinburgh (a) and Connacht (h).
Connacht’s programme: Edinburgh (h), Munster (h), Leinster (h), Scarlets (a) and Ulster (a).