Director of rugby, Les Kiss, has said it is up to Ulster to now hold on to their top four place in the Guinness PRO12.
On a weekend of crucial fixtures, the landscape changed significantly.
Ulster rose to fourth place after a 47-17 win in Parma over Zebre after defending champions Glasgow Warriors had also picked up a try scoring bonus-point win over Scarlets, who had started the weekend in fourth.
Edinburgh’s losing bonus point in their loss to Leinster had seen them climb to sixth place and Munster now must find a crowbar if they are to get into next season’s European Champions Cup having dropped to seventh and having salt rubbed in their wounds when given a 35-14 walloping by second placed Connacht.
Ahead of the weekend Ulster chief Kiss had said round 20 of the campaign was massive in determining where things would sit going into the final two rounds of the campaign.
“It’s mission accomplished,” declared Kiss, in terms of the outcome he wanted in Italy.
“Five points was what we expected from ourselves and it’s what was expected of us, so it’s good to deliver that.
“We’ve put together a good couple of games, with beating Connacht and now Zebre. We’re in the top four, and it’s our job to stay there.”
While the top three remained unchanged, Leinster, Connacht and Glasgow also confirming their qualification to the Champions Cup, Ulster now have a two point advantage over Scarlets and need at least one win from their two remaining games to secure qualification for Europe’s top tier next season.
But in a season of many twists and surprises, Ulster probably need to win both their remaining games against Leinster (home, April 30) and Ospreys (away May 7) to be sure of that top four place and most probably an away draw in the semis.
Ulster scored seven tries against Zebre, with Ireland wing Tommy Bowe making a double try-scoring return in the game.
Bowe suffered a knee injury at the World Cup in October and his only rugby since had been 40 minutes for Ulster ‘A’ against.
But the British and Irish Lion needed only 14 minutes at Parma’s Stadio Sergio Lafranchi to get back in the try-scoring routine and he went over for a second score in the dying moments.
Bowe, however, took a supporting role to Jared Payne, whose 12-minute hat-trick either side of the break paved the way for Ulster to move back into the top four of the PRO12.
Ruan Pienaar’s converted second-minute try put Ulster on their way, but Zebre scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani levelled after a great drive by the home forwards.
Bowe restored Ulster’s lead, which Paddy Jackson extended to seven points, but a Carlo Canna penalty made it 14-10 and Zebre were very much in the contest.
But Craig Gilroy soon picked up a loose ball to power over and Payne secured Ulster’s bonus point with the first of his three tries.
Palazzini’s yellow card on the stroke of half-time allowed Ulster to pull away further with full-back Payne profiting from some excellent back play to cross twice more.
Zebre replacement Ulrich Beyers broke away to claim a second try for the hosts and the reliable Canna converted again.
But Ulster had the final word two minutes from time when Darren Cave fed Bowe and the veteran sprinted over for his second try.
Kiss was delighted to see his backline looking so dangerous, with Paddy Jackson, Mmn of the Match Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall putting in excellent shifts alongside the try scorers.
“Paddy and Stuart were fantastic in the first half and that set the platform. They controlled things very well and brought others into the game with their penetrative running and their passing ability,” said Kiss.
“Unfortunately Paddy to a knock just above the knee but that gave us an opportunity to look at Stuart in the ten jersey in the second half and I thought he did well.
“I’m really pleased for Tommy.He knows he still not at his best but it’s great to have him back and great to have him play 80 minutes and get a couple of meat pies,” joked the Australian.
But Kiss also tempered his obvious delight with the victory as he knows there is still a tough encounter with league leaders Leinster on ths horizon.
“We’ve got a good preparation week building for what is a classic in our calendar,” he added.
“Leinster did well to get their win over Edinburgh. It’s not going to be easy, we know that. A
“t Kingspan last year we did a job on them (leinster) and it’s up to us to do the same again.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be a massive atmosphere and our boys will be up for it.”