Remaining games are like knockout fixtures for Ulster

Friday night’s Guinness PRO12 results have made no difference to what Ulster have to do if they are to firstly make the end of season play-offs and secondly, secure a home tie in those.

Ulster dropped to third place in the league standings after Ospreys’ secured a try scoring bonus point in Italy against Treviso in a 33-13 victory.

Leaders, Glasgow also secured a bonus point win in a home 36-17 success over Cardiff.

It means Ulster, with a tough run-in of fixtures, need to win what is a pivotal inter-pro game against Connacht in Galway on Saturday afternoon - and probably take a try scoring bonus point to reinstate themselves in second place.

Ulster are three points behind Ospreys now, but with their game still to come, and their target will remain to finish in second place and forget about how the Scottish leaders are doing - until the sides meet in the final game of the regular season.

However, it does put added pressure on Ulster this afternoon knowing they need to produce the goods against the Westerners who are seeking an Irish home treble this season having already beaten Munster and Leinster.

Like the majority of PRO12 clubs last weekend, Ulster could only look on as the European Champions Cup knockout stages were staged with the quarter-finals taking the major focus.

It was the first time in five years Ulster were not in the last eight, but head coach Neil Doak admitted there was still plenty to keep the minds focused on the domestic front.

“Of course it is disappointing not to be in the last eight. The European Cup is a special competition and we have been a big part of that in the past few years,” he said.

“But we are not looking back, we are looking forward and for us there is a PRO12 title to be won and we have to make sure we maintain our second place at the very least so we can get a home semi-final.

“That is the goal - it was always the goal - and of course with the final being staged in Belfast we want to make sure we give ourselves every opportunity to be in that final at The Kingspan Stadium.”

Key for Ulster going into the final four games of the regular league season - three of those against fellow Irish Provinces, starting today with Connacht in Galway - is their squad profile is looking much healthier than it was at the turn of the year.

The return of Irish internationals Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne and Rory Best - who all start this afternoon - from Ireland’s championship winning Six Nations campaign, plus the return from suspension of Stuart McCloskey and Roger Wilson and a couple of long terms injuries, including outhalf Paddy Jackson, has been a massive boost to Doak.

But the Ulster coach was still disappointed that he is missing Nick Williams - out for the season after a citing complaint was found against him - and Luke Marshall, whose five week suspension finishes tomorrow.

“It is important to have everyone, or as many as possible available for the run-in. It is a tough end to the league programme with three teams who are all vying for the play-offs with us coming up against us,” said Doak.

“If you look at the Cardiff game it was the bench who got us over the line and securing that try scoring bonus point. You saw last week in Europe with Leinster able to bring international players off the bench.

“And that is hopefully the position we will be in over the next few weeks. The bench plays a vital role in the game now.

“It is 23 players who take the field now each week and everybody has a part to play.

“In the coming weeks with games against Leinster, Munster and Glasgow, plus the Connacht match today, we will want to be able to use as big a squad as possible to help us achieve what we desire.”

Meanwhile, one of the players who was involved in the Six Nations and played a major part from the bench, Iain Henderson, wants to see Ulster press on now and get a winners medal in the PRO12 - which would add nicely to his two Six Nations Championship winning medals.

Ironically the 23-year-odl has played more games for Ireland than Ulster this season but he is hoping to put a run of games together in the white shirt.

“It’s not ideal for a provincial career to be playing more games for your country than your province, but given the unfortunate season I had with my hip injury that’s just the way it’s panned out.”

“Hopefully, I’ll rack up a few more Ulster games between now and the end of the season.”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now, unfortunately, I live with Stuart Olding and seeing him lying across the sofa and trying to recover as much as possible already, I thank my lucky stars that I haven’t had a real serious injury like that.”

“The Blues game, the 30 seconds that we played together was the first we played, the whole way through school together and after school and we played on the America tour two summers ago and since then we haven’t played together until that game there.”

“We were looking forward to getting a run of games together and maybe getting in the squads for the (World Cup) warm-up games and forwarding on from that potentially more.”

“So we were getting really excited about playing together and obviously Jacko as well and it was frustrating that it came to an end so quickly for Stuart this season.”

With only four games to go in the PRO12 Henderson knows there is no margin for error and they travel to Connacht on Saturday which can be a tricky fixture.

“I think they’ve only lost one PRO12 game at home, they want to make history and beat all three provinces at home (and make Champions Cup) but we’ve got to go down there and if we know our game-plan, and we execute it the way we can, in the matches when we’ve had all our international players back like the Leicester game, we know we can go out there and do a good job.”