So then, Ulster did the double over Leinster, Leinster did the double over Munster, and Munster did the double over Ulster, but there was never a whiff of a treble at the Kingspan Stadium last Friday night.
Ulster avenged their sole home defeat in the URC this season with an emphatic 36-17 win to end Munster’s season and earn a semi-final against the Stormers in Cape Town next Saturday (kick-off 3pm local time/2pm Irish time).
“Jeez that would have been torture, wouldn’t it? Oh, that would have been absolute torture,” Dan McFarland commented wryly at the possibility of losing to Munster three times this season. “You know the worst thing about it? Johann [van Graan] – I really like Johann. I get on really well with him. I think he’s a really good coach. He’s such a nice fella. Those last two conversations with him after games? It’s just terrible. I wish he was a nasty man because then at least I can grumble at him.
“I believe he’s done a really good job in Munster. Yeah, they haven’t played well the last two games but the bottom line is, you can’t expect both teams that played out here to win. That’s ridiculous. One of us was going to lose. And yet in the morning I read doom and gloom, what they’re doing is terrible. But somebody’s got to lose.
“It’s a tournament with 16 teams in it that Leinster have dominated for the last five years. Any team who wins it that isn’t Leinster will literally have doubly performed from what you expected at the beginning of the year. So let’s not kid ourselves. Nobody expected anybody other than Leinster to win this tournament at the beginning of the year.”
Although travelling to South Africa at short notice, Ulster are at least playing at sea level and were only beaten 23-20 by the Stormers 11 weeks ago after a late Callum Reid try was, by the admission of the URC, wrongly ruled out.
“Look, it’s playoff rugby, isn’t it?” said McFarland. “By definition, going from a quarter to a semi, the semi should be a harder game. We managed to back up games during the Champions Cup. I’ve never seen backing up games as an issue for us. Each game is what it is. I suppose the only thing for us is the physical side. How many injuries do you have after a game that was really physical? Mentally it’s not a problem for us. It’s a semi-final. Who wants to lose a semi-final?”
The defeat marked the end of Van Graan’s time with Munster, his assistants Stephen Larkham and JP Ferreira, as well as a grim last appearance for Damian de Allende, John Ryan and Chris Cloete.
“Yeah, that’s utterly disappointing,” admitted Van Graan. “This one hurts. I think the thing for me was the quality of our performance. We created so many opportunities and we just knocked on the ball – I think something like 19 turnovers, starting with the first kick-off of the game and we knock it on. The frustrating thing is how uncharacteristic this was for us as a group. There’s certain things in the game that went well but not close to good enough to win a quarter-final.”
James Hume, who figured prominently in some outstanding back play, put Ulster’s three meetings with Munster in perspective.
“I just think the first game away we were so poor. They got a red card and we just kicked everything away. It was horrendous game management from the players on the pitch. Everyone can take responsibility for it. The last one here, it was just a lack of energy. But we know from watching video reviews and doing our homework that we’re so much better than them and as a backline tonight we just tried to do what we do. Everything game off.”