How ruthless Ulster put Scarlets to the sword again
Ulster 30-15 Scarlets
Since the Heineken Cup was redrafted and redrawn following the 2013-14 season, only once has a team amassed 18 point from the pool stages and not made the quarter-finals as one of the three best runners-up.
That the side in question was Ulster themselves will no doubt aid in ensuring nobody at Kingspan gets too carried away but after last night's efficient bonus-point win over a now eliminated Scarlets there is an inescapable feeling that the northern province sit one win away from what would be a sizeable achievement.
The five points banked thanks to tries from Jacob Stockdale, John Cooney and a brace from Iain Henderson has Dan McFarland's sat on 14 points from four games in Pool 4, the last eight days putting them in a position where a first quarter final since 2014 has gone from a bonus to an expectation.
Few expected the full haul out in Parc y Scarlets last weekend but, having taken care of business so impressively as underdogs, they ensured there was to be no stumble when installed as favourites.
There was one small passage of worry, when an intercept score tied things up at 10-10 midway through the second-half but the side's calm response ensured not just that they regained the upper-hand quickly, but also set up the chase for the bonus point score, capably provided by an on cue Cooney with 13 minutes remaining.
Playing into the wind to begin with, the gusts played havoc with a few of Scarlets' scrum-half Gareth Davies' early box kicks and it was one such effort that blew back towards the scrum-half that give Ulster the territory to score the game's first points. As Jake Ball went off his feet, Cooney had no problem going for the posts with the wind at his back to give his side a three-point advantage.
As the game entered its second quarter, Ulster will have been pleased with where the game was being played - they had an early 55-45 advantage in territory - but given the prevalence of the wind will have had a nagging concern that it had not yielded a bigger advantage.
Once again they looked to their maul. A potent weapon of late having been seldom seen early in the year, it was a lengthy rumble from Rory Best's pack that advanced them within metres of the Scarlets line. The visitors tightened up in the shadow of their own posts but the pressure eventually told, both in the yellow card shown to prop Wyn Jones and an eventual try for Iain Henderson.
For a team with little to play for, Scarlets were making Ulster work hard for every inch from the numerous pick and goes but it was Henderson who applied the desperately sought after finish.
As Wyn Jones and Lewis Rawlins, sacrificed for a prop come scrum time, returned at the end of the sin-binning period, Scarlets opened their account from a Rhys Patchell penalty after Marty Moore was pinged at the breakdown.
At 10-3, things were finely poised at the turn.
Then came the potentially monumental swing. Strong carries from Louis Ludik and then Stuart McCloksey had Ulster looking like they were set to double their advantage but, metres from the line, Cooney was intercepted by his opposite number Davies and Scarlets went the length.
There was a somewhat farcical element to the score when Davies' kick ahead evaded both Steff Evans and Speight but bounced off the protective padding on the post. Jon Davies was there to mop things up, and despite the protestations from the crowd, Luke Pearce saw no evidence of offside in the build-up.
A self-inflicted shotgun sized blast to the foot is just the type of things Heineken Cup pools can swing upon but, just two minutes later, Ulster struck back.
Burns, injecting a nice variety to Ulster's play, first swung the ball wide to Speight and when it came back his way chipped ahead for Stockdale to gather. On such opportunities has Ulster's young star forged his career and there was again no stopping him, despite the efforts of three Scarlets.
Cooney's sideline conversion was a case of close but no cigar but when he knocked over a penalty before the hour mark, Ulster's momentary wobble seemed behind them.
And so it proved soon after when, again met by stiff Scarlets resistance, Henderson provided the necessary muscle to bull his way over the line.
Having never scored more than two Ulster tries in a season, the lock's timely double had Ulster chasing a bonus point win.
The wait for crucial score was not long in coming, again a Best-led maul to the fore and this time finished smartly by the quick-thinking Cooney.
Nothing should be described as academic when there remains a remote possibility of points difference counting, but there was little concern on the terraces when Steff Evans crossed for the game's final try.
Ulster's job was already successfully completed.
Ulster: L Ludik; H Speight, W Addison, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; E O'Sullivan, R Best (c), M Moore; I Henderson, K Treadwell; S Reidy, J Murphy, M Coetzee.
Replacements: R Herring (for Best, 67), K McCall (for O'Sullivan, 65), T O'Toole (for Moore, 67), Matty Rea (for Treadwell, 76), N Timoney (for Coetzee, 67), D Shanahan, J McPhillips (for Burns, 67), D Cave (for Stockdale, 58)
Scarlets: J McNicholl; T Prydie, Jo Davies, H Parkes, S Evans; R Patchell, G Davies; W Jones, K Owens (c), S Lee; J Ball, D Bulbring; L Rawlins, W Boyde, U Cassiem.
Replacements: R Elias (for Owens, 53), P Price (for W Jones, 67), W Kruger (for Lee, 59), T Price (for Ball, 76), J Helps (for Rawlins, 76), S Hidalgo-Clyne, D Jones (for McNicholl, 52), P Asquith (for Jon Davies, 59)