Ulster have little wriggle room left
It is well and truly the business end of the season for Ulster Rugby and the next three weeks may decide the potential for glory or disappointment.
The strength of the extended squad has been tested over the last six weeks, but the players have emerged in decent shape with 15 points being gleaned from a possible 20.
This now sees Ulster positioned right in the mix for a top four finish as that same period saw more mixed fortunes for their rivals — Munster lost to Aironi, Cardiff Blues succumbed to the Dragons, while the Ospreys are looking increasingly vulnerable. There is minimal wriggle room, but things are looking good for Ulster.
Italian opposition have been the key to Ulster’s Heineken success in the last two seasons with tries and points galore against Aironi. The team faces a much trickier fixture this Saturday away to Treviso. This has ‘banana skin’ written all over it, as the Italians are a formidable group at home and will try to feed off the feelgood factor generated by the Azzurri’s victory over Scotland. It is not a case of wanting to win, Ulster have to come away from the Stadio de Monigo with a victory.
The following week against Aironi should once again allow for a full complement of five points. And then we have the big one against Munster.
The Rabodirect fixtures are ends in themselves — Ulster cannot afford to drop points at any stage now, especially with final fixtures against Leinster and Munster.
Yet, the next two matches represent and provide an opportunity for much more. Through the domestic league, Ulster need their returning internationals Rory Best, Andrew Trimble and Stephen Ferris to add extra value and the team to generate confidence and momentum for the next stage of the European odyssey. It is crunch time.