United Rugby Championship
Over their last three games in this inaugural season of the United Rugby Championship, Ulster have lost more times than they did in the whole of the final campaign of the PRO14.
In tonight’s trip to Edinburgh, Dan McFarland’s men are out not only to ensure a trio of consecutive league losses does not become a quartet, they also need a victory to cement their place in the end-of-season play-offs with only one round of fixtures remaining after this weekend.
While a year ago a pair of defeats to Leinster were enough to ensure the league would yield no knockout rugby for the northern province, this time around everything remains on the table.
Last week’s Ravenhill reverse at the hands of Munster saw the side drop from second to fifth in the standings with any scenario from hosting in the quarter-finals and a prospective last-four tie to missing out on the play-offs altogether all still possible.
Meanwhile, as it stands, this season’s new structure requiring a top-seven finish for Champions Cup qualification adds an extra wrinkle too.
The product of the new eight-team play-off system, a second-half surge from the incoming South African sides and something of a resurgence from the Scottish pair, there is drama aplenty in these concluding rounds with Ulster’s Nick Timoney relishing the jostling for position going into the final stretch.
“If you look at last season we finished second in our conference but didn’t have a shot at the play-offs because it was straight (to the) final,” said the man who will again wear the No.7 jersey in Edinburgh this evening.
“To an extent, that lessens the significance of the tail end of the season.
“I presume that every game in the next two rounds could have some sort of potential implications, be that for the play-offs or for Europe.
“I think it is better and you want to be part of something competitive. Last year it sort of felt that the Irish teams dominated a bit. We finished second in our conference to Leinster and Munster won their conference pretty easily and Connacht were second in theirs.
“It just seems to me to be a better spectacle (this season) and I think that is more attractive to be a part of because you want to win something that was hard-fought and competitive.
“It seems like a good thing to me.”
Ulster fans would no doubt be in more universal agreement if not for their team’s present slide. Having been top of the conference as recently as during the Six Nations, few would have expected they’d still be battling for their place in the top eight with only two games remaining.
Plenty will, of course, point to their controversial loss to the Stormers that started this slide last month — the URC’s Head of Match Officials Tappe Henning later admitted Ulster’s would-be game winner should have stood — but it is that loss to Munster eight days ago that really shifted the landscape.
Losing in South Africa has been the lot for the vast majority in recent months but slipping up at home to an inter-provincial rival was just the sort of European hangover McFarland will have hoped to avoid after their gut-wrenching Champions Cup exit at the hands of Toulouse.
Having lost more often in the last five weeks than they had in the season’s first five months, Timoney is keen to preach perspective.
A man who missed out on the Leinster Academy, and was out of the Ulster team as recently as a year and a half ago, the 26-year-old who over the past 12 months has become an international in Andy Farrell’s stacked Ireland back-row is not one to be overwhelmed at the first sight or sense of some adversity.
“Al (team-mate Alan O’Connor) gave me a good perspective on this a while ago,” remembered Timoney.
“Any time you lose or have some sort of thing going on, you give yourself an opportunity to prove to yourself that you are good and not just on a good run.
“I have had plenty of times in my career where things haven’t gone well. I’ve lost all sorts of games and have been dropped from all sorts of teams.
“And I think every time you have some adversity, to come back proves that it wasn’t just a fluke or that you weren’t just on a lucky run.
“We’re not happy with the last few weeks but if you can get things back on track and show that you’ve got back to where you want to go to, I think that will just add to the confidence that those top (levels) that we can get to are a fairer reflection of what we are.
“Everybody can have a decent run.
“This is a chance to actually prove to yourself that you are as good as you think you are and you can do as well as you think you can do.
“I find that opportunity exciting and that’s the way I look at it.”
And while where Ulster will take the field in the play-offs is now out of their own hands, Timoney knows that should Ulster hit those heights from earlier in the season, they have already shown they can beat the likes of Leinster, Clermont, Northampton and Toulouse on the road.
“If we did end up in an away quarter-final I wouldn’t be sitting with the head down thinking that we have no chance. We like playing at home, we like giving our fans an easy trip to the game and we like getting the atmosphere going the way it can go here,” he added.
“It is certainly not a case of whatever happens, happens in the last two rounds, we want to get a home quarter-final and that is an important thing for the club, but if you don’t have the confidence or a back-up plan to deal with a small bit of adversity it’s not worth anything.”