At precisely 11.59am on Friday morning, Ulster were readying themselves to travel to London for a third visit to the Twickenham Stoop in four seasons as four-point underdogs.
By the time kick-off of their last-16 Challenge Cup clash rolled around on Sunday evening, they found themselves 13-point favourites. Even that, as it turned out, was well wide of the mark.
The dramatic shift in perception surrounding this contest came with the announcement of the host’s team selection, their run-on side showing just the 14 changes from the panel that narrowly lost to Bristol in domestic action a week prior.
Tyrone Green, the sole survivor, could be forgiven for wondering if he was being rewarded or punished.
The Premiership, unlike the PRO14, has not curtailed their season to leave the confetti and fireworks required before the month of March was out and, as they sit in the fourth and final play-off spot with seven rounds remaining, Harlequins will be afforded the right to devote their resources where they see fit.
You can imagine, however, the wailing and the gnashing of teeth among the television execs who had saved this clash for the 16th fixture of a chaotic European weekend presumably on the assumption that this was to be the pick of the bunch in the second-tier competition.
As it was, what once looked set for an engrossing contest packed with intriguing plot-lines became an Easter Sunday tilt where anything other than a convincing win for the visitors would have left them with egg upon their faces.
With the combination of such radically different domestic schedules and the obvious desire for Ulster to put to bed persistent natter regarding a decade and a half long trophy drought, this may not be the last time in this competition that Dan McFarland’s men find themselves with decidedly greater motivation than their opponents but all they can do is beat whatever teams are put out against them. Here they did that with an efficiency bordering on the brutal.
Four tries from their first four visits to the opposing ‘22’, they’d ultimately run in eight scores with three coming off the back of a dominant maul.
Harlequins had launched the game’s first attack but when former Ulsterman Brett Herron’s ambitious pass out wide spun into touch, his old side pounced clinically.
Rob Herring, in his first game back after the Six Nations, nailed his line-out throw to Alan O’Connor and when ‘Quins sacked the maul, Ulster gleefully gobbled up the metres off the penalty.
Looking sharp once again with ball in hand, Robert Baloucoune almost danced over himself but when he was hauled down short of the line it required just one recycle for Stuart McCloskey to crash across the whitewash with only seven minutes on the clock.
A Cooney penalty extended the lead and, with Harlequins drawing blasts of Romain Poite’s whistle with worrying frequency, a second try in the early going seemed inevitable.
When it arrived, it was one to warm the heart of their set-piece minded head coach.
A free-kick earned on Harlequins’ put in gave the visitors possession and Marty Moore eked out a penalty at the next scrum.
With Baloucoune again looking dangerous, this time drawing a high tackle, the ball was sent to the corner with Herring the try-scoring beneficiary off the effective maul.
Sharing the wealth, when Ulster were next in the ‘22’ with a line-out to come, Reidy was the man entrusted with rumbling over off the base.
A yellow card for skipper Jordi Murphy, quickly followed by his Harlequins’ counterpart Tom Lawday wriggling over for a score, threatened to put some respectability on the scoreline before the break but Mike Lowry evidently had other ideas.
Returned to full-back after a two-game run in the ten jersey, the electric youngster gathered a somewhat listless box-kick and had only eyes for the line as he arched his run and trusted his pace to carry him to the corner before any of ‘Quins would be tacklers could converge upon him.
The pick of the night’s 11 tries by a distance.
When Murphy returned a few minutes into the second-half his side were 22 points to the good, just as they had been when he departed. All the visitors required at that point was to draw any lingering sting from the game and, whether it was Murphy on the poach or a Rob Herring strip tackle, Ulster’s most experienced players successfully ensured there was to be no sniff of one of the unlikely comebacks that littered fixtures elsewhere this weekend.
Another maul score for Herring and an intercept ran under the posts by Billy Burns to put the cherry on top of a strong personal showing saw the game descend into a full-blown rout.
Each side still managed two more from that point, Ulster’s pair coming through Alby Mathewson and man of the match Reidy to blow past the half century mark before the curtain came down.
A six-day turnaround and questions over their numbers of fit and available locks after Cormac Izuchukwu departed with a worrying knee injury will be among the hurdles to be overcome this week before the quarter-finals.
Ultimately though the size of the challenge that awaits from Northampton in Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday will again depend on just what side the English outfit decide to put on the field.
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