CAUTION AND RESPECT were the order of the day as Munster and Ulster set the tone for their Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown.
Gallant defeat in Clermont-Ferrand on Saturday afternoon denied Ulster the luxury of a home draw, and although a trip down the road to Thomond Park looks to be the next best thing geographically, that’s of little consolation to Brian McLaughlin’s men.
“We’ve got a massive task to go down to Munster,” Ulster captain Johann Muller admits. “They’re a side that never goes away, that always gets a win somehow.”
Whoever emerges as the victor from the clash, scheduled for the weekend of 7/8 April, will host either Edinburgh or Toulouse in the semi-finals, probably in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.
And with Leinster drawn at home to the Cardiff Blues — and then a possible road-trip to either Saracens or Clermont awaiting at the semi-final stage — yesterday’s draw has plotted out the path for an all-Ireland final on English soil on 19 May.
Unsurprisingly, Muller insists that Ulster can’t even afford to think past the next game, let alone Twickenham and a first Heineken Cup since that famous win over Colomiers in 1999.
There’s huge incentive to get to the semi-final and get a home semi-final, but at this stage, we’ve just got to concentrate on Munster.
One of the pool stage’s two best-runners up, many believe that Ulster have punched above their weight to escape from a “pool of death” which included two European heavyweights in Clermont and Leicester. While the players and management surely would have settled for that outcome on hearing the draw back in June, a sense of regret still lingers following Saturday’s game in France. A missed opportunity.
“When the draw came out, if you told us that we would get out of a group like we were in, we probably would have all said we’ll take it,” Muller explains.
“In the past, Leicester and Clermont are probably two of the best sides in Europe and for us, as a so-called smaller club, to do as well as we did, we probably would have taken a quarter-final.
But then, playing the type of rugby that we did over the last few weeks, there’s a huge disappointment for all of us that we didn’t get a home quarter-final. I truly believe that it was right there for us. It was there for the taking.
“With all of the experience that we do have in that side and all of the growth that we’ve shown over the last 18 months, I still believe that in that last 10 or 15 minutes we’ve shown a lack of experience, a lack of composure.
“We had an opportunity to get right back into that game and we didn’t take them, whereas the week before we had four opportunities against Leicester and we took all four and it was game over.”
That mauling of Leicester at Ravenhill 10 days ago lives on in the memory, not just of Ulster and their fans but of those down around Thomond Park who will have to negotiate past them if they’re to claim a third European crown.
“We’re certainly very aware of the of the sort of challenge Ulster will provide and recognise the quality they have in their squad,” coach Tony McGahan said this afternoon.
“To come out of the group they were in was one thing, but to produce the performances they did, especially that win over Leicester Tigers in Ravenhill, shows exactly what a good side they are.
I thought they were absolutely sensational that day. One of the best performances we’ve seen in the campaign this year. And they backed that up with their performance at the weekend in Clermont.
“It indicates they are comfortable on the road and wont be at all fazed by having to travel for the quarters.”