Ulster now map a path to secure title dream
Ulster know what lies before them and what obstacles they must scale if they are to match last season’s achievement in reaching the Heineken Cup final and then bettering that by winning the trophy.
The route to the final on May 18 entails beating Saracens in their quarter-final showdown at an as yet unspecified venue in London on the weekend of April 5-7, with the date also unconfirmed at this stage.
With the winners of that tie enjoying the advantage of a semi-final in their own country, victory would see Ulster — as a province playing under the IRFU umbrella — back at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, for the second time in 12 months.
Last year, of course, they met Edinburgh at the Aviva Stadium in the Heineken Cup semi-final.
This year, were they to beat Saracens in London, their reward would be Dublin date with the winners of Toulon v Leicester Tigers who meet in the last eight.
The other semi-final will be played in France, giving the winners of the ASM Clermont Auvergne v Montpellier quarter-final a big advantage over the victors in the Harlequins v Munster tie.
In brief, if Ulster are to conquer Europe they must first beat Saracens away and then, in the Dublin semi-final, see off the winners of Toulon v Leicester Tigers. Finally they will be required to defeat the team to emerge from the ASM Clermont Auvergne v Montpellier and Harlequins v Munster foursome. Ulster missed out on a home quarter-final despite having qualified as Pool 4 winners, but the process was the same as every other year and is both fair and simple.
With six pools and eight quarter-final places on offer, those go to the half-dozen pool winners plus the best two runners-up.
As a result of there being four quarter-final matches featuring six pool winners, the two finishing with fewest points join the pair of runners-up to complete the quartet playing away.
Throughout the pool stage, points are amassed as follows: four for a win, two for a draw and one-point bonuses for scoring four or more tries or losing a match by seven points or fewer. Attacking play is rewarded, therefore.
Harlequins won Pool 3 with 28 points, the same total as Pool five winners Clermont.
Harequins, however, emerged as number one as a result of having scored more tries — 28 to Clermont’s 23.
Similarly, with Saracens, Ulster and Toulon winning Pools one, four and five respectively, each with 23 points, tries scored determined the finishing order. Toulon (23), Saracens (15) and Ulster (12) meant they came in third, fourth and fifth.
Thereafter the pairings are straightforward: one plays eight, two plays seven, three plays six, four plays five. Heineken Cup quarter-finals (to be played the weekend of April 5, 6, 7).
Bath have announced the signing of Ireland international scrum-half Peter Stringer as short-term injury cover.
The Munster number nine has won 98 caps and played in three Heineken Cup finals.