How Ulster secured a second play-off of the season as famine ends with a feast
Ulster Rugby went almost three years without any knock-out rugby but, thanks to an impressive win over Edinburgh, are looking forward to second quarter-final against an Irish rival in just five weeks.
Having been beaten by Leinster in the Aviva at the end of last month, the beginning of the next will see Connacht head north to take on Dan McFarland's side for a place in the last four of the PRO14.
The northern province's victory in Scotland on Friday night locked them into second spot in conference B with Connacht's win over Cardiff in windswept Galway a day later ensuring their own play-off fate.
The two Irish rivals will meet at Kingspan Stadium on either May 3 or 4 with the winner set to travel to either Glasgow or Munster a week later.
"Second quarter-final of the year and this time it's at home," beamed Stuart McCloskey after the win over Edinburgh. "It'll be a great day and hopefully we get everyone out to watch.
"It was a great win out there, good to get five points and secure the home quarter-final."
Ulster entered the penultimate round of league action under real pressure, their defeat to Glasgow a week prior leaving both Benetton and Edinburgh breathing down their necks.
But the bonus-point 29-7 win saw the side dominate proceedings from start to finish, with Billy Burns' first try for the side in the 78th minute providing the icing on the cake. It was a stark contrast to the fare a week prior just down the road, where Ulster began well but petered out against Glasgow.
"That was the difference," said McCloskey of the consistency from start to finish in Edinburgh. "We started well last week but didn't carry it through.
"But the defence really showed up there and our attack plays came off. We let a few chances slip but it was great to see Billy get over in the end for his first try and everyone was really happy for him."
While Ulster will be delighted that their first play-off game will be at home, ironically improved away form under Dan McFarland is one key factor behind their return to the sharp end of their domestic competition.
Once Leinster were shown to be a cut above once again and Benetton established as contenders, the race for the remaining two play-off spots always felt like a four-team mini-league involving the Italians, Ulster, Edinburgh and Scarlets.
With margins so fine, it is Ulster's wins in both Treviso and Edinburgh that have made all the difference. Indeed, in matches between themselves and the three teams around them, November's loss in Parc y Scarlets is Ulster's only reverse. And, in all competitions, this is the first season since 2013/14 where the side have won at least as many as they lost on the road. While Ulster came away with two injury concerns in the shape of Jacob Stockdale and Marty Moore, the sight of Luke Marshall getting through another 80 minutes augers well for the play-off push. The centre returned from the bench in the Champions Cup against Leinster after 10 months out and has gone wire to wire against both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
"It's great to have Luke out there again," McCloskey said. "He's lively out there, he gives a lot of chat.
"We've missed him over the past 10 months. It's good to have him there because we've always gelled well together."
While Ulster will be favourites to advance to the semi-finals, they do have recent reminders of the dangers posed by their neighbours after the 2016 champions beat them on their own patch earlier this season in a game that wasn't as even as the 22-15 scoreline would suggest.
Having had to wait some 58 years between wins in Belfast, Connacht will now have the opportunity to secure two in the space of just six months. The westerners won at Kingspan Stadium back in October, breaking a hoodoo that had stretched back to 1960, and their coach Andy Friend was naturally delighted to have secured not only a play-off place but also a return to the Champions Cup after victory in their high stakes contest.
"We knew what was on the line there and Cardiff knew what was on the line, and you could see how desperate both teams were to win," he said. "It means a lot to all of us, it means a lot to the west of Ireland. For Irish rugby it's a great sign and we're really pleased we'll be there (in the Champions Cup) next year."
Like Dan McFarland, Friend is in his first season in the job but, while his Ulster counterpart requested a moment to digest when asked how he would approach next week's dead-rubber interpro with Leinster, Friend has already stated his intention to go all out for victory over Munster on the final day.
"We'll have a quarter-final against Ulster, but before that, we've got to go to Munster," he said. "People will say the result doesn't matter, but it does, because sport is about momentum too so we want to keep winning.
"That'll be a huge game in Thomond Park and then Ulster in a quarter-final, which is very exciting. You want to be at the business end and now we're in the quarter-final, we want to go further than that."