Having ended 2021 with their already bloated absentee list expanding ever further owing to a Christmas Covid-19 outbreak, Ulster’s first game of 2022 saw them travel to Thomond Park with 14 players unavailable, 10 of them capped internationals.
There aren’t many club sides in the world who wouldn’t miss Iain Henderson, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Robert Baloucoune and Will Addison.
While the absence of those key men has been much discussed, others have been proving the the truth behind the old adage out of sight, out of mind.
Ian Madigan, Luke Marshall and Jordi Murphy have amassed 71 Irish caps combined over the course of their careers yet have not appeared on a single team sheet all season.
The last thing Dan McFarland needed, therefore, was to see another pair of star performers hobble out of the loss to Munster.
That those knocks were sustained by John Cooney and James Hume — if not his most important players yet to be bitten by the injury bug then among the very top few — would have nudged the coach into ‘if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry’ territory.
Speaking after the defeat in Limerick, McFarland offered no excuses and, as his side prepare for another massive fortnight in their season, they will need to adopt the same mantra.
The record books contain no asterisks to denote bad luck. No matter how many the injuries, nor how poorly timed, a huge part of Ulster’s season will be defined by how the next two games set them up for a run in the Champions Cup.
Their pair of wins last month have the province well positioned. Sunday’s trip to Northampton before hosting Clermont six days later is now all about finishing the job regardless of who is fit to do it. Of solace to the coach and the side’s supporters will be how they have quietly built their depth over the last calendar year.
As an avid watcher of the NFL, McFarland will be familiar with the phrase ‘next man up’ so often used across the pond and it is only through a raft of Academy graduates that the organisation were able to name a side last time out that many felt was the stronger of those on show.
"The Academy blokes have come through and, besides Duane (Vermeulen) and myself, we haven't had too many overseas signings coming in,” said Aussie lock Sam Carter last week, alluding to a changed business model only made possible by an improved production line. “That is a good sign because that means things have been very organic.”
Ethan McIlroy, for example, has impressed to such a degree that there will be some debate when Addison, Stockdale and Baloucoune return about where he fits into the side.
It is worth remembering too that Hume, arguably Ulster’s best player along with Nick Timoney over the last year, first got and seized his chance in Luke Marshall’s absence.
While credit must go to the now-departed Kieran Campbell and Willie Anderson for their work with these players at under-age level, as well as to McFarland for entrusting them with the opportunities, there is no doubt that Europe will provide a heightened stress-test of the whole squad.
Holding your own in the URC and going against the giants of the Premiership and Top 14 are different matters and chief among the concerns going into this week will be how best to compensate for the loss of McCloskey. Ben Moxham was deployed in the midfield on Saturday night having previously played for Ulster in the back-three, although Stuart Moore could return.
As a collective, though, Ulster will know that McCloskey’s injury against Northampton coincided with their lull in that game while, without him against Munster, they could not break down 14 men for 65 minutes. Though the 29-year-old’s defensive contributions aren’t always given the credit they deserve, the big question is how Ulster make up for his injury in attack.
Whatever the answer, this week is about who is there, not who isn’t. In the unforgiving arena of Europe, absence can’t make the heart grow fonder.