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Ulster must home in on top two spot for right to host Pro12 semi-final

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 23/05/2016

Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster. Pic Stephen Hamilton
Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster. Pic Stephen Hamilton
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Erin mcCracken and Caitlin Mcnally
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Erin mcCracken and Caitlin Mcnally
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster .
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Erin mcCracken and Caitlin Mcnally
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Tom and Luke Martin from Belfast
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Stephen and Dillon Gardiner from Belfast
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Tom and Luke Martin from Belfast
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster .
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Tom and Luke Martin from Belfast
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at Podium for Sport in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster .
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at Podium for Sport in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster .
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at Podium for Sport in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Holly Smyth who flew home from Liverpool university to attend the match
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at Podium for Sport in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Holly Smyth who flew home from Liverpool university to attend the match pictured with Sylvia Mahoney and Yvonne Smyth
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at Podium for Sport in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster .
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at Podium for Sport in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster .
Stephen Hamilton Northern Ireland -20th May 2016 Photograph: Stephen Hamilton Ulster rugby fans pictured at Podium for Sport in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster . Craig McCord and Kim Galway
Ulster rugby fans pictured at Podium for Sport in Belfast ahead of tonights Guinness PRO12 semi final match against Leinster. Pic Stephen Hamilton

If ever there was a weekend that showed the value of home comforts. Ulster travelled to the RDS on Friday as the 13th visiting semi-finalist in Pro12 history and returned north as the 13th who failed to advance to the final.

Connacht's impressive win over champions Glasgow at the Sportsground on Saturday ensured the streak will last until at least 2017.

While an away team will win a last four clash one day, at present Ulster must demand more from the league season.

We often hear throughout the campaign about the importance of the top four with nerves jangling whenever the team drop out of the league's top third.

At present, however, all third or fourth brings is an extra 80 minutes before thoughts turn to summer tours or summer holidays.

Top two, and the right to host a semi-final, must now be seen as the requirement and there's little reason it could not have been achieved this year.

Ulster have the playing talent, the resources, and the coaching ticket to sit comfortably in the upper echelons but careless results mid-season left the province in a scramble just to make the top four.

Les Kiss mentioned the losses at home to Munster and away to Cardiff as games that could have made a difference during his post-match debrief and you can add to that list the Kingspan reverse to Scarlets and the surrendering of losing bonus points in the last minute when visiting the same opposition and Glasgow.

Every team will look at ones that got away but to have five such outings is clearly too many for a team with title aspirations.

A repeat next season and the trophy doubt will continue.

While ultimately the season ended on a familiar and disappointing note, it should be remembered that the last nine months have offered reasons for optimism.

Fans will no doubt have tired of hearing how the squad will learn from defeats but to lump all those losses together would be unfair.

The record of just three wins in 12 knock-out games makes grim reading but the Ulster side of 2011-14 must be considered a different vintage to the one fielded on Friday. Johann Muller, John Afoa, Stephen Ferris and Tom Court were big players as Ulster made a regular return to the latter stages of tournaments but the 2014 loss to Saracens signalled the closing of that team's window of opportunity.

It is only opening for this side.

It's natural to assume that, with the benefit of a full pre-season, Kiss' methods will bear more fruit next season and the team's attacking structures will continue to grow.

With Paddy Jackson getting better and better, Ulster have a backline that is trending only one way.

The depth in the pack will continue to be the main area of concern but will be bolstered by returns from injury.

It is the marquee arrivals of Charles Piutau and, when he is over his knee problem, Marcell Coetzee that will make the biggest difference and the feeling will be that this is the most talented Ulster squad in some time.

A top two finish should be demanded.

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