GUINNESS PRO12: Ulster bid to hit top four spot

Stuart Olding in action for Ulster during the game against Zebre
Stuart Olding in action for Ulster during the game against Zebre

Ulster can clamber back into the top four of the Guinness PRO12 for the first time since the end of December when they complete their Italian triology against Zebre in Belfast on Saturday night.

A victory of any kind at Kingspan Stadium will see fifth place Ulster overtake Scarlets and boost the Irish Province’s Championship play-off chances.

Ulster lie a point behind Scarlets and this rearranged game provides the perfect opportunity to take fourth place and also close the gap on third placed Munster who Ulster will meet in three weeks time.

Having suffered four straight defeats in all competitions since the turn of the year and saw Ulster’s European campaign end at the pool stages as well as slide to sixth in the PRO12 standings, Les Kiss’s side have gone four wins on the bounce, three with try scoring bonus points, to put them in a strong position with this game in hand still to come.

The game against Zebre had been initially scheduled to be played at the end of November, but it was postponed due to a frozen pitch.

The sides met a fortnight ago in Parma with Ulster taking all five match points in a 40-17 win.

That made it three bonus point wins in succession having previously defeated Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors at home.

It was also the first of three Italian jobs facing Ulster as they hosted Benetton Treviso last weekend in Belfast.

In one of the worst nights of weather at the Kingspans Ulster made it four from four to move within a point of Scarlets and while some will see the failure to get a try scoring bonus against the Italian as a point dropped - to have taken 19 points out of a possible 20 is something not be ignored.

However, if Ulster do not take all five match points, irrespective of the weather conditions against basement side Zebre, there will be reason to be disappointed.

However, director of rugby Kiss is quick to remind onlookers that while Ulster have a good run of form, Zebre and Treviso are involved in their own mini competition with a place in next season’s European Cup at stake.

Zebre are two points behind Treviso and have two games in hand so they will come to Belfast confident in the way they were able to put Ulster under long periods of pressure in Parma - even if they suffered a ninth straight loss in Galway against Connacht last weekend.

Kiss does expect Ulster to grasp the opportunity this weekend to move into the top four and take back a certain amount of control of their own destiny.

“We know what is at stake and I guess in some ways we knew this position would come, although we did not know when.

“There are things which have worked well for us in the past few weeks and there are a few areas we still need to work on. But we are focused on going out and doing what we have to do and that is getting the win.

“There is a lot of water to go under the bridge, but from our respective, if we get this over the line, it changes the shape of not only us, but other teams, particularly third, fourth and fifth.”