We can finish on top -- Humphreys
Aironi 20 Ulster 46
Published 19/12/2011 | 05:00
It's still a bit early to be considering possible permutations, but David Humphreys insists Ulster will go into their final two pool games with "all guns blazing" after they kept their European aspirations alive with a bonus-point victory over Aironi.
The northern province assumed pole position in this year's group of death by outscoring the Italian minnows six tries to three in the Grand Prix city of Monza.
With Clermont picking up a losing bonus point at Welford Road in the other Pool 4 fixture, it's all to play for in a pool which seems certain to go down to the wire.
Ulster host the Tigers in round five before heading to France for the climax of the pool at the end of January, with top spot now the stated aim.
"As things stand, we now have a very good chance of topping the group and getting a better draw in the quarter-finals," said Humphreys, deputy for Brian McLaughlin, who was unavailable due to personal reasons.
"Despite being drawn in a very difficult pool, that has been our goal from the start, and we're going to go into the last round with all guns blazing.
"We haven't had a chance to sit down and look at the permutations yet.
"But after round four, you generally get a good idea of how the pool is likely to pan out. Leicester's win against Clermont certainly makes things interesting.
"If they had lost, perhaps it would have been easier for us to earn qualification. But as things stand, we now have a very good chance of topping the group and getting a better draw in the quarter-finals.
"Now Leicester have to come to Ravenhill to play us, and what a fantastic prospect that is.
"We've already beaten Clermont at home, and now that we've secured back-to-back bonus-point wins against Aironi, anything is possible."
Indeed, just about anything did seem possible during the first half of this particular encounter as Ulster played some of their best rugby of the season, the poor quality of opposition notwithstanding.
Tries for Andrew Trimble and Tom Court either side of a penalty try had them 24 points up going into the break, and a five-pointer seemed a near formality.
However, Aironi bounced back strongly in the second half, and it wasn't until Craig Gilroy's 70th-minute try that the bonus point was secured.
By that stage, Stephen Ferris was playing at centre due to the injury withdrawals of Nevin Spence and Paddy Jackson (both leg), the latter of which seemed quite serious as he was carried off the pitch.
Not ideal circumstances, then, but the rare sight of Ulster leading the way after four rounds will undoubtedly keep spirits high over the Christmas period.
Bearing in mind, also, that Leicester failed to register a bonus point when they travelled to Italy in round two, a 10-point haul in back-to-back fixtures against Aironi is nothing to be scoffed at.
"It was all about getting the five points," agreed back-rower Pedrie Wannenburg. "That was our sole aim.
"Of course we made life difficult for ourselves after the break.
"We didn't keep the ball in our hands and maybe we went after the fourth try too early, but eventually we got there.
"We're top at the moment, so we can't really worry too much about what is happening in the other games.
"Our fate is in our own hands now. There are still two games to play and we have a great incentive to stay top of the pile."
Aironi -- R Trevisan (R Quartaroli 48); S Sinoti, A Masi, G Pizarro, G Venditti; L Orquera, T Keats; S Perugini (A de Marchi 41), F Ongaro (T D'Apice 45), L Romano (F Staibano 45); Q Geldenhuys (G Biagi 45), M Bortolami (Capt); N Cattina, S Favaro, J Sole.
Ulster -- A D'Arcy; A Trimble (S Terblanche 50), D Cave, N Spence (P Jackson 45, N Brady 67), C Gilroy; I Humphreys (P Marshall 65), R Pienaar; T Court (P McAllister 50), R Best, J Afoa; J Muller (Capt), D Tuohy (Barker 59); S Ferris, C Henry (A Macklin 77), P Wannenburg (R Diack 65).
REF -- G Garner (England).