Ulster can go all the way as they walk tightrope
Published 07/05/2016 | 02:30
There have been moments to sit back and admire Ulster this season. At times, they have looked the real deal.
Yet, there have equally been times when the northern province have followed a sublime display with a ridiculous result - undoing the good work and leaving them in a position where, on the final day, they are not guaranteed a place in the post-season play-offs.
Last Saturday's performance against Leinster was one of those high points, a moment when the men in white looked ready to take the final step and win a first trophy in 10 years.
Yet, failure to back that up against a good Ospreys team today would once again undermine those signs of progress and, if Munster don't do them a favour against the Scarlets, then they'll have to wait another year at least.
Of course, this could be put down as a year of transition as Les Kiss implements his strategies ahead of the arrival of real star power in the form of Charles Piutau and Marcel Coetzee to add to an already strong squad, but they still have a chance to earn a place in the knock-outs and can make a mark in this campaign.
Yet, there are question marks about key areas of the squad; with an apparent lack of depth in the front-row positions, a lengthy injury list in the second-row and, Iain Henderson and the departing Nick Williams aside, a paucity of ball-carrying back-rows.
Behind the scrum, however, there is strength a-plenty as long as Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson stay fit. Centres Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey have been excellent, while the back-three is on par with any in the league even with the luckless Tommy Bowe out injured.
Ulster were the only Irish province to leave the Champions Cup with their head held high, despite heavy defeats to a Saracens team that could claim the trophy next week, and their performances against Toulouse suggested a bright future.
Yet, after six years of obvious progress on and off the field without tangible reward, there is a desire amongst the Ravenhill faithful to cap it all with a trophy.
In Kiss, they have one of the league's most astute coaches who has the capacity to come up with specific game-plans for the big one-off games that await and, although no team has won an away semi-final in the Pro12, no-one has come closer than this team did in Glasgow last year.
Victory today would send them on the road to face either Leinster, Connacht or the Warriors in two weeks' time and they look well set up to be the team to break that hoodoo.
Failure to win a trophy would be disappointing, but missing out on the semi-finals would mean the campaign falls well short of expectations.
After suffering eight defeats in the regular season, more than anyone else in contention, the margins are fine for Kiss' men today as they look to prolong their campaign.
The Australian has made progress in his first campaign, only for it to be undermined by inconsistency. If they can begin to back up their performances, they can win the league.
The only thing stopping them is themselves.