Finishing line in sight as Ulster bid to get job done
Getting the job done is now the focus for Ulster as they face their final four games of the regulation season with the next being on Saturday week at the Sportsground against Connacht.
That's the message being sent out by coach Neil Doak as second-placed Ulster and the other PRO12 top four challengers other than Leinster - who are still involved and play Bath this weekend - now enter a period of playing alternate weeks in the league due to the knockout stages of the Champions Cup being played out.
Nevertheless, Doak will probably be resigned to being without Stuart Olding for what looks likely to be the remainder of the season after the 22-year-old suffered what is believed to be significant cruciate ligament damage in last Friday's bonus point win over Cardiff Blues.
And number eight Nick Williams also looks on course to be handed a ban of some description as he prepares for a hearing following his citing for allegedly striking Blues full-back Rhys Patchell.
Though the probable loss of the versatile Olding - the extent of his injury has yet to be confirmed - will be keenly felt, Doak does at least have a number of options at his disposal for the two-times capped Ireland international's usual position of inside centre.
With Jared Payne available again after Ireland's dramatic Six Nations success - Rory Best and Tommy Bowe should also be on board for the trip to Galway - and the Ireland-qualified Kiwi's likely starting place to be at 13 for Ulster, Doak can then either move Darren Cave to inside centre or he could possibly deploy Stuart McCloskey, who will have returned from his ban for being red-carded in Edinburgh.
But if Williams is serving what is thought to be a likely suspension for the Connacht game, the number eight position will then either be filled by Roger Wilson - though it is not clear if he will be available over the personal reasons which kept him out last Friday - or the usually benched Robbie Diack with either one taking their place in a back row containing Chris Henry and Iain Henderson.
Other than these issues, Doak will be hopeful of being pretty close to having a full roster to choose from for Connacht which will be the first of three inter-provincial derbies to be played out - Leinster and Munster are then at home - before the final regulation season fixture at current leaders Glasgow Warriors.
Doak certainly laid it all on the line to his squad in the wake of the 36-17 victory over the Blues.
"It's now cup final after cup final and we've got to make sure that we get the job done," said Doak.
"We have almost everyone in the squad fighting fit and selection will be a good headache to have and I'm not sure I've had too many selection headaches this season.
"For our returning players it would be nice to have a game as they would have liked to have had a run of matches," the coach added of having no fixture this week.
"But the break gives us the chance to prep a bit more for the Connacht game and the other teams for the back end of the season."