Ulster left to carry Irish hopes into Europe

Ulster's Stuart McCloskey breaks against Saracens in the lead up to the opening try
Ulster's Stuart McCloskey breaks against Saracens in the lead up to the opening try

Irish rugby has enjoyed much success in the European Cup - either in the Heineken format of the more recent guise plotted by the English and French - almost from its inception in 1995.

Leinster have enjoyed three outright wins, Munster two and of course, Ulster, were the first Province to lift the famous trophy in 1999.

For the first time since 1997-98 there is the chance that Ireland will not have a representative in the last eight.

Remarkable when you think of the success they all have regularly enjoyed over the years.

Leinster were as good as gone after three rounds, Munster’s hopes had faded by the end of their rescheduled game with Stade Francais last week.

Both produced impressive displays in the penultimate round five, Munster securing a home bonus point win over Stade and Leinster defeating Bath in Dublin.

Those results helped Ulster’s cause even though they crashed to a 33-17 away defeat to favourites Saracens on Saturday.

But the hopes of a nation now rest with Ulster in the final round of games.

They entertain Oyonnax at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday needing to first secure all five match points from the fixtures and then wait until the rest of the weekend unfolds to see if results elsewhere go in their favour and they can keep Ireland’s record in Europe running on by securing one of the three best runners-up places across the five groups available.

The Ulster management made it clear in the wake of a disappointing performance by their side against Saracens that they expected a response against Oyonnax and there was probably only one outcome acceptable this weekend - a bonus point win.

Oyonnax gave Ulster a torrid front 40 a week ago and only an amazing second half recovery from the visitors saw them turn a 23-0 deficit around to win 24-23.

Against Saracens, Mark McCall’s side produced a ruthless powerful second half display which blew Ulster away.

Some stats will have to be improved upon for an Oyonnax side coming to Belfast on the back of an impressive 32-14 win over Toulouse.

Ulster’s scrum success was 60 per cent. The lineout success was 67 per cent. They had 40 per cent possession and 37 per cent territory.

There is much to focus on for the squad this week, but they do not have to dig too deep to improve on those percentages or find a ruthless edge - the back to back wins against Toulouse pay testament to that.

The Pool One fixtures kick start the final weekend of matches leaving a long wait for Ulster until possibly Sunday afternoon to see how the picture develops.

Let’s hope it is worth the wait!

At worst, Ulster can finish with a flourish and if victory is not enough it could be a blessing in disguise.