Here are four reasons why Ulster are the perfect dark horses to win the Pro12
Published 28/04/2016 | 12:05
With just two weeks to go in the Pro12 regular season, excitement levels are high with all four provinces fighting to achieve important end of year objectives.
For Munster, they badly need to beat Edinburgh in Cork this Friday to qualify for next year's Champions Cup, while Leinster and Connacht continue to battle for top spot in the table. Then there is Ulster, who are quietly occupying the final playoff spot at the moment.
Les Kiss' men have flown under the radar a bit recently after a few disappointing performances at the exact same time their provincial rivals have enjoyed a few eye-catching results - both positive and negative.
Ulster host Leinster in Ravenhill this Saturday afternoon in a game that will have huge top four implications. While the home side's Champions Cup spot is probably secure barring a catastrophic finish to the season, were they to lose to Leo Cullen's side then they could easily miss out on the Pro12 semi-finals.
Les Kiss' side have had their faults this season - after all, there are reasons they are fourth rather than first. They have lost too many close games from winning positions - both Munster fixtures and Scarlets at home come to mind - while they don't have the same calibre of player in the pack compared to Leinster, certainly.
But if you are an Ulster fan, there are still a few key reasons to be hopeful that Kiss could lead the side to their first league crown since 2005/06.
Here are four reasons that we think Ulster are strong dark horses that could surge to a memorable Pro12 finish.
Their record against Connacht
Most neutrals - and even some die-hard supporters of other provinces - are probably hoping that Pat Lam's men can sustain their season-long quest to win the league playing wide-wide expansive rugby. But while Connacht's ball-handlers have unlocked almost every defence in the league, they have come unstuck when facing Ireland's ex-defence coach and his men.
Les Kiss plotted a league double over the westerners - 10-3 in Galway and 18-10 in Belfast - to continue Lam's miserable run against Ulster since arriving in Galway.
The two sides have played six times during Lam's three-season tenure and Connacht have lost all six times. That isn't to say that Connacht wouldn't overturn them in a possible home semi-final or a final but Ulster's record against their rivals will fill the side with confidence.
They have a backline to rival any team in the league
Glasgow and Connacht lead the league with 57 and 55 tries respectively but just behind them on 52 lie Ulster. What's more is that after an injury-plagued season, they can now call upon just about every one of these top-class internationals:
Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Stuart Olding, Jared Payne and Louis Ludik. There isn't a team in Ireland with such an array of offensive talent to choose from.
Glasgow are rightly lauded for their dazzling attacking displays but Ulster's contingent of try-scorers look to have found health at the perfect time - the only issue for Kiss is how to settle on the right combinations.
A defence as good as Leinster's
Writing in his Sunday Independent column a few weeks back, Neil Francis questioned that if Leinster were top of the Pro12, what did that say of the league's overall quality? While this season's Blues haven't been as scintillating as Joe Schmidt's vintage, a stingy defence and a dominant pack has put them top of the pile.
Ulster can certainly compete with Leinster in the first category. Leinster have conceded the fewest tries (21) and points (241) but Ulster aren't too far behind them (25 and 275).
Les Kiss looks to have transferred his defensive savvy effectively from international level to the club game and his side's tries for and against figures suggest their league position at the moment might be disguising their potential playoff effectiveness.
They are good value
Despite the reasons outlined above, the bookies don't expect Ulster to end their Pro12 drought. Here is how the top four is valued at the moment:
Leinster 6/4, Glasgow 3/1, Connacht 7/2, Ulster 6/1.
Ulster and Leinster clash this weekend, so it will be interesting to see how those odds change afterwards, but at the moment, Ulster look to be good value to lift the Pro12 trophy - a prerequisite of a dark horse, right?
They have been agonisingly close the last few seasons and it is worth remembering they were a bounce of a ball away from winning in Glasgow at the penultimate stage last year and were similarly close to winning in Leinster at the same stage the year before.
A good record against the form team in the league, a deep attacking roster and a stingy defence doesn't usually equal 6/1, which is why Ulster are perfect dark horses to win this year's Pro12.