Ulster's Euro exit a year in the making
Doak's men must now lay down foundations for next campaign
If last week's win at the Kingspan Stadium against the Scarlets was Ulster's attempt to rage against the dying light of their Champions Cup campaign, then yesterday's 22-13 defeat in west Wales finally confirmed that there was to be no miraculous great escape come January.
Having lost their two opening Pool 3 games to Leicester and Toulon back in October, a pair of wins over their Pro12 rivals this month was essential but Neil Doak's men could only complete half the job, yesterday suffering a dispiriting loss ahead of an important part of the campaign.
The scrum, doubted in pre-season but hugely solid so far this year, crumbled after Wiehahn Herbst's injured hamstring rendered him unavailable, while there was almost none of the exhilarating, running rugby that was on show last week.
Ruan Pienaar's penalty attempt in the 75th minute, coming before Roger Wilson's pass to his scrum-half was intercepted by James Davies and ran back for a try, could have papered over the cracks of a limp performance. But had Pienaar given his side a one-point advantage in the closing moments, few would have argued that it was deserved and the visitors were once again the architects of their own downfall.
Dublin referee JP Doyle was certainly officious but Ulster's woes in the penalty stakes cannot be pinned solely on his shoulders.
Scarlets did not perform particularly well on the day but they did not need to as Ulster infringements allowed Wayne Pivac's side to build a 12-0 lead without ever really impressing.
A try from Darren Cave, after a swift exchange of inside passes with Luke Marshall, brought hope but that moment, along with one isolated break from Tommy Bowe, were two of the only occasions that Ulster were able to move the ball with the pace and guile that had shredded the same opponents last week.
The scum issues eventually led to a yellow card for Declan Fitzpatrick, a sin-binning that had seemed likely from the first moment Doyle expressed frustration over the Irish international's technique, and while a pair of penalties from Pienaar brought them within touching distance, Ulster were unable to complete the comeback.
As Rory Best gathered his beleaguered troops around him in the immediate aftermath of the final whistle, their desolation was clear for all to see but the captain may well have reminded them that the hard work really does begin today.
Even if they had managed to eke out a win last night, a fifth successive trip to the quarter-finals of European competition would have remained a relative long shot.
A trip to Toulon, where the high-spending champions rarely lose, was still there to be negotiated while the visit of Leicester Tigers to the Kingspan was never going to be straightforward.
The injury issues that have ruled out several key players have been well documented, and certainly undermined their efforts during the competition, but the difficulty of the pool was evident for all to see as soon as the draw was made, and it can be argued that the seed of Ulster's failure was sown not this year but last.
The changing system for this season means domestic success is now imperative and the loss to Leinster in last season's Pro12 semi-final ensured that such a daunting group was possible.
While the competition should be respected in its own right, the remainder of this Pro12 season must also be looked at in terms of its potential to improve Ulster's continental prospects.
Currently fourth in the table after nine games, a huge push will be required to ensure that their league performance sees them move into Europe's supposed second band of teams and, with the visit of Connacht sandwiched between trips to the Ospreys and Leinster to come over the next three weekends, there is no time for the province to lick their wounds.
For Neil Doak's men, the effort to improve on this year's meek Euro showing next time around must start this Saturday, away to Ospreys.