After much speculation as to how the heavily disrupted European season might pan out, Ulster will now get to see out their campaign by tasting life in the Challenge Cup.
This will be the first time the province have been involved in the secondary European competition and it comes about due to the postponement of rounds three and four in what was already a revised format due to the impact of the pandemic.
Indeed, being part of the Challenge Cup will be seen as increasing Ulster’s chances of having a serious tilt at winning the competition and finally ending their lengthy quest for silverware, even though they now move straight to the knockouts.
Playing in the Challenge Cup could also now result in Ulster facing off against London Irish which, if it comes to pass, would see the province going up against former player Paddy Jackson and ex-coach Les Kiss.
Should an Ulster clash with London Irish be one of the eight games to come out of next month’s draw, then Dan McFarland’s squad will be travelling as Irish have a guaranteed home tie.
The latest revision for the Champions and Challenge Cups means that the competitions are scheduled to resume on the weekend of April 2-4 with a knockout round involving 16 teams before both move on to quarter-finals and semi-finals ahead of the finals in Marseille.
Ulster found themselves not part of the 16 clubs due to see out the Champions Cup as they were just outside the top eight in Pool B at the time of the tournament’s suspension, after losing the two games they played against Toulouse and Gloucester.
Joining Ulster in dropping down to the Challenge Cup are Connacht, Northampton Saints, Bath, Montpellier, Dragons, Harlequins and Glasgow Warriors.
The draw for the round-of-16 will take place on March 9 and Ulster cannot be drawn against any other side in the Guinness PRO14, and will therefore face one of London Irish, Leicester Tigers, Newcastle Falcons, Agen, Northampton Saints, Bath, Montpellier or Harlequins.
London Irish and Leicester are guaranteed home ties as their preliminary stage matches were not impacted by Covid-19.
Ospreys, Cardiff Blues, Zebre and Benetton are the PRO14 teams who were already part of the Challenge Cup structure.
The knockout stages will be subject to open draws.
With dates for the Rainbow Cup still not confirmed — and doubts persist over the cross-hemisphere competition due to the pandemic — the fact that Ulster have something hopefully inked in after the PRO14’s scheduled completion at the end of March will be a massive boost for McFarland and his squad.
Meanwhile, Ulster lock Kieran Treadwell has added his voice to the need to keep the wins coming as the province prepare to host the Ospreys on Friday night (kick-off 8pm).
With leaders Leinster now five ahead of Ulster in Conference A and with four rounds to go before the scheduled PRO14 final — including a huge clash between the two at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday week — Treadwell and co. have to ramp up the chase.
“We’ve got to win games, if bonus points come after that then they do, but the bottom line is that we have to win,” said Treadwell, who won his 100th Ulster cap last weekend in the non-bonus-point win at Glasgow.
“We’ve got to win games to get ourselves in that position,” he added of Ulster’s intended aim of making a second straight PRO14 final.