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Timing now perfect for Doak's men

Ulster: Favourable run of fixtures lies in wait

By Jonathon Bradley

With little to play for but pride on Saturday evening, Ulster provided their most complete showing of the season against the Leicester Tigers at the Kingspan Stadium and, despite their European exit, a repeat of such endeavours throughout the remainder of the campaign will reignite dreams of domestic success.

Against a side that needed a victory to preserve their hopes of making the Champions Cup quarter-finals, there only ever appeared to be one winner and the home crowd roared their approval at a decibel level not heard for many months.

Given the injury issues this season, it has been hard for the team to gain much in the way of momentum but what was a familiar looking backline unit certainly clicked against Richard Cockerill's men.

Darren Cave's hat-trick of scores - an especially timely development for the 27-year-old given that he now departs the scene to join Ireland's Six Nations squad - will grab the headlines but he wasn't alone.

Jared Payne was strong both with and without the ball, while a spinning Craig Gilroy gained 85 metres of ground.

The returning Luke Marshall threw himself into his defensive duties with gusto and the alertness of Tommy Bowe was exemplified by his attempts to go for an early intercept score.

In the pack, the notable return of Iain Henderson provided further reason to cheer while his backrow partners Roger Wilson and Mike McComish were tireless.

Up front, Leicester's set-piece remains vaunted but their attempts to gain superiority at the scrum seemed more punishing to the Kingspan turf than the home side's tight five.

Indeed, matters were going so well that when Gilroy crossed for Ulster's fourth score of the game, a repeat of the famous 33-0 win of 2004 was just a converted try away.

Leicester would belatedly get on the board when Adam Thompstone crossed the whitewash but they would not make any further headway, even during the spell when Ulster only had 13 men.

While the spirit displayed in last week's record loss to Toulon should never have been in question, to produce a performance of such character just seven days later was certainly impressive.

The trick for Doak and his management team will be to repeat the feat in the games that really matter.

With the Six Nations now under two weeks away, the majority of eyes will be focused on Joe Schmidt's attempt to bring Ireland a second successive crown but it will be a make or break section of Ulster's campaign.

While some of the province's eight players summoned to Carton House will be released back, it will likely be April before a full complement are available and there are five PRO12 contests to negotiate before then.

A run of fixtures that brings visits from Treviso, Scarlets and Cardiff, as well as trips to face Edinburgh and the Dragons, sees Ulster play five of the bottom six in succession, with the opportunity to amass a high points total too good to pass up.

Even shorn of their Test stars, the momentum from the Tigers victory must be carried into early spring given a concluding slate of fixtures that includes Connacht, Leinster, Munster and Glasgow.

Ulster currently sit fifth on a total of 39 points, five behind table-topping Ospreys.

Over the four years of a 22-game schedule, an average of 72 points has been required to finish in the top two and gain a home semi-final.

An average of 64 points has been the mark to make the play-offs and, while it would likely take more this season, 49 points have been needed to finish sixth which, this season, would secure a place in next season's Champions Cup

With such a favourable run of fixtures upcoming, Ulster could barely ask for a better time to round into form.

While dangerous to write off any opponent, five wins during February and March would be within the capabilities of an Ulster team playing as they did on Saturday.

The unit that struggled away from home, and sometimes failed to convince at the Kingspan during the opening months, however, rarely looked like reeling off a quintet of consecutive victories.

Which team will we see over the coming crucial stretch? With no game until February 13, we'll have to wait and see.

Belfast Telegraph


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