Top four race is still on: Ulster prop Andy Warwick
Ulster's season nearing last chance saloon but prop still believes side can get play-off push back on track
Ulster prop Andy Warwick is refusing to give up hope of a PRO12 play-off spot despite seeing his side fall out of the top four over the weekend.
Friday night's draw with Cardiff Blues at Kingspan Stadium brought the province's six game winning streak to an untimely end, with a five-point haul for Scarlets on Saturday night seeing the sides switch places in the table.
Now on the outside looking in, Les Kiss' men could not have a harder finish to their season as they face the league's top three in consecutive games starting with Saturday's trip to Thomond Park for an inter-pro clash with Munster.
Warwick, who has started seven of the team's last 12 in the continued absence of Kyle McCall, still believes however that they can book a fifth straight play-off berth.
"Definitely," he replied when asked if there was still the necessary belief within the squad.
"We've got three tough games starting this week and we need to put in a big performance. It's a tough place to go but we've won there before.
"We're looking forward to it already and we just have to push on and make sure we can get in this top four.
Despite Cardiff having arrived in Belfast sitting eighth in the standings, and off the back of a dispiriting Challenge Cup exit one week prior, Warwick was not surprised by how well the Blues performed, even if he acknowledged it was the type of game the hosts really must be winning.
"Friday was disappointing," he said. "We knew they had good players. They started the season well and they're coming into it now in the back end.
"We were prepared for a good team. They kept the tempo up when they played but you could see them slowing it down on our ball."
If Friday's draw did Ulster's play-off hopes little good, it was at least a fitting result for one player.
Having spent four happy seasons in Belfast, Nick Williams left Kingspan for Cardiff with the weekend's fixture representing a first return to his old stomping ground.
Sprung from the bench in the first half when Sam Warburton departed with an injury, Williams admitted he had little time to bask in the warm reception afforded him by his former home crowd.
"I don't think I had time to let it sink in," said the man who won Player of the Year in 2012/13.
"Obviously when Warburton went down the boys said you're on. Once you get over that white line it is all for the Blues then when it's finished it's all hugs and kisses.
"You know how special this place is to me, but maybe it's even more special now. "When I ran out to warm up, and when I came on, I was always accepted as an Ulsterman.
"Things like that as a player, you always remember and as long as the head is good you never forget.
"Even two or three weeks ago people were sending me messaging and tweeting and things like that. "It just holds a very special place in my heart."
Williams was part of a hugely effective Cardiff back-row unit, that ensured the visiting back-line had plenty to work with all night while frustrating Ulster when they were in possession.
The 33-year-old was pleased with their efforts as they look to finish a moderately disappointing campaign as strongly as possible.
"We had Josh Navidi, Warburton and Jenkins there so we came out to try and slow Ulster down, we played three sevens and it worked very well for us. "It was a ding-dong battle and we could have nicked it but if you said we'd come to Belfast and get a draw, we'd take that any day.
"When we saw the team Ulster put out, they showed a bit of respect for us.
"People like (Rory) Best, Trimby (Andrew Trimble). Jackie (Paddy Jackson), and Piney (Ruan Pienaar), for the Cardiff lads to play against them gave us a bit of a boost and hopefully we earned their respect there."
Ulster will hope Friday's result is the only lasting damage to their play-off hopes after Jared Payne hobbled off with an ankle injury.
The full back, who recently returned from three months out, should find out the extent of the injury early this week.