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Ulster now face top two for Kingspan PRO12 semi-final

By Michael Sadlier

So, things are looking good, yet the feeling of satisfaction at swatting Leinster aside, crucially getting the top four place, and even briefly leading the PRO12 table, has been quickly parked for what lies ahead.

Not that it takes anything away from last Friday night's impressive win, it's just that there is still a mountainous challenge to be tackled from Ulster's fiendish-looking two-game run-in if they, now back in third, are to take ownership of a semi-final at home.

Achieving that through a top two finish will now require wins over the sides ahead of them; second-placed Munster at home on Saturday week and Glasgow Warriors away.

Indeed, these are sides with the same goals on their minds and with a spread of four points separating the Scottish squad at the top from the Ospreys in fourth there is still quite a bit to be sorted out regarding who faces who for the play-offs.

But getting that home tie for the knockout stage is the desired outcome as no travelling semi-finalist has been successful in making it through in the five previous seasons the format has existed. And, of course, Ulster also know that finishing in second is good enough to potentially keep them in Belfast right to the end as the May 30 final is also at their Kingspan fortress.

So, no pressure then as we gear up for a dramatic finish to the regulation season and, coincidentally, all four of the sides who will make up the play-offs meet in next week's penultimate round of games with Glasgow travelling to the Ospreys.

Yes, but when it comes to the last week, Ulster have the most arduous looking task of all having to go to Scotstoun in search of a result where the Warriors have a pretty bullet-proof record in the league.

Doak could have done without Glasgow, Munster and the Ospreys all coming away from last weekend with bonus point wins while Munster's home victory over Treviso edged them a point ahead of Ulster to make Saturday week's clash all the more tasty.

Ulster simply know they must win it, and take their season's PRO12 victory run at the Kingspan to all 11 regulation outings, and then still deliver at Scotstoun and especially so as Munster host the lowly Dragons on the last day.

"We can't effect what's going on around us but we can when we next play," Rory Best said.

"But we also know we can play a whole lot better (than against Leinster) and we'll hopefully be in a good place at the end of the season. Our next small step is to try and get the home semi and we'll not be looking beyond the next game," the skipper added.

On Friday night, Ulster showed much that should stand them in good stead. They struck back quickly from trailing 10-0 and then managed to gradually rack up 26 points without reply.

What impressed about Ulster was the way in which they produced at key pressure moments.

Even though Iain Henderson had another huge game, and got a vital try, while the league's leading try-scorer Craig Gilroy crossed yet again and Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson were also influential, it was Ulster's work-rate when under the cosh that was really worthy of attention.

Franco van der Merwe's second half lineout steal on his own line was a momentum-shifting moment as was Ulster's defensive work at the end of the game when, with Andy Warwick in the bin, they stubbornly refused to yield as Leinster swarmed towards the try-line.

Ulster will now need all this and much more to avoid having to make travel plans for their semi-final.

Belfast Telegraph


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