Ulster’s European credentials have moved up another notch

Published Categorised as Editorial, ERCC, Provincial Rugby Men, Ulster Rugby Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Ulster turned on the style once again in Europe to make it three from three with a 24-20 win over Northampton Saints at Franklin Gardens on Sunday.

It was a similar scoreline in Belfast – 27-22 – and both did not reflect the dominance the Irish Province had.

However, crucially they garnished 10 match points from the two games to rubber stamp their place in the knockout stages.

Clermont, who Ulster defeated in the first round of fixtures, come to Belfast on Saturday when Jono Gibbes’ side will look to get the result they need to ensure they can follow Ulster into the round of 16.

For Ulster, securing another win is not important in terms of who they will meet in the last 16, which is being played over two legs and the top four finishers in the two pools will travel for those first legs.

But, Dan McFarland will want to see his charges complete their European pool phase with a 100 per cent record. That, provided they can then progress to the quarter-finals, would leave them with a decent punt at a home draw in the last eight which is so important in this elite club competition.

Having suffered a disappointing loss away to Munster ahead of their return to European action, and given that Northampton selected a strong side, it was tricky to predict how Ulster would go at Franklin Gardens.

No John Cooney either – a chance for Nathan Doak to get his first European start, and the young pretender once again stepped up to the mark.

Centre James Hume and backrow forward, Nick Timoney, also used the opportunity to keep their chances of Six Nations selection on the upward trajectory, while winger Robert Baloucoune boosted his green jersey chances.

Mike Lowry produced a Heineken ‘star of the match’ display – this was probably the best we had seen him this season – but it may be a bit of a stretch to see him make Andy Farrell’s cut. Perhaps in the extended squad.

At times when Ulster put themselves in good positions, they had a tendency to slip up on the next opportunity, but the win at Saints was thoroughly deserved and reflected the hunger they have for wanting knockout rugby.

This time last season, Covid saw the European competitions halted, and Ulster ended up in the Challenge Cup knockout stages, having only played two of their four pool games.

Dan McFarland post Northampton

Covid did its best to rock the boat once again this time around, but crucially Ulster had already put themselves in a good place after two rounds. Now already qualified for the last 16 they need to push on and finish the job when Clermont come calling.

Leinster, one of the teams impacted by the pandemic, were angry after their game away to Montpellier was conceded. That anger reached outrage during the week when the organisers ruled that games which were postponed in the second round would see both teams awarded two points.

Montpellier – which fielding a much weakened side in Dublin – felt the full brunt of anger, Leinster registering the biggest win in European history with a 89-7 success, which included 13 tries.

Not really sure how much Leinster benefited from it and how you could judge their performance, but they will be ready to seek another five match points when they go to Bath this weekend. 

They need a win to secure a place in the last 16, although if they were to suffer a shock defeat, results elsewhere could still help them progress.

Munster have also booked their place in the last 16, they dug deep in Castres but secured the victory with the last play of the game to leave them three from three.

They face Wasps in Limerick which given the latter’s recent resurgence, should make for an interesting clash.

Connacht suffered heartbreak as Leicester Tigers scored with the last play of the game to sneak a win in Galway.

But the two losing bonus points secured still leaves them with a chance of making the last 16 and there is every reason to believe they can go to Stade Francais and get the result they need.

Interestingly, if you were to take the current standings as they are, the draw for that two-legged last 16 would be as follows (the top four finishers in each pool play away first):

Wasps v Racing; Toulouse v Ulster; Connacht v La Rochelle; Bordeaux v Leinster; Exeter v Bristol; Sale v Munster; Clermont v Leicester; Glasgow v Harlequins.

Looking at that, you cannot help feeling Ulster would get the short straw! How often has that happened in Europe? The year they qualified as top seeds for the last eight, they played Saracens. 

However, to win the Champions Cup, you need to beat the best at some point to get your hands on the trophy.

If you look at all the drama from the weekend just gone, best to buckle yourselves in for what could be an exciting climax to the pool stages this weekend

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