Leicester's troubles, if doubted by anyone, were well and truly confirmed at Ravenhill yesterday. Despite Dean Richards, Leicester's director of rugby, insisting that "the group is still open", this resounding defeat severely dented any realistic hopes the Tigers have of progressing to the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.
The plight of the twice-champions of Europe is becoming a regular bar-room discussion, aired almost as frequently as speculation about Martin Johnson's international retirement. With every defeat the situation is becoming more pressing - except this was not an ordinary defeat.
The old virtues of Tigers' rugby - meanness, aggression and organisation - were completely absent, as was Johnson himself until the 52nd minute, a cold and bad back restricting him to bench duty. Leicester suffered accordingly.
As ever there were mitigating circumstances; the loss of both centres, Daryl Gibson and Ollie Smith, in the opening nine minutes was extremely unfortunate, especially as Smith's injury helped Ulster score their first try. After a clash of heads with Paul Steinmetz, Smith was left motionless on the turf and David Humphreys cleverly exploited the one-man advantage with a grubber kick to set up Paddy Wallace.
The injuries, however, cannot disguise the paucity of ideas from Leicester, the numerous turnovers, missed tackles and knock-ons, and the ineffectiveness of Ramiro Pez at stand-off.
Ulster, by contrast, were bristling with intent, the forwards particularly providing a muscular platform which allowed Humphreys to drive his team forward with some intelligent kicking. Undoubtedly, the strong wind was also a factor, Leicester choosing to play into it in the first half. Richards admitted that he felt a "15-point deficit was about right," - unfortunately it ended up as 28.
"We missed too many first-up tackles and gave away three tries, soft ones," was his summation of why, a point exemplified by Neil Best powering through the defensive line before passing to Andy Ward for a 15-0 lead in the 21st minute. Even then, this score came from a Leicester error, Pez conceding a penalty when isolated that allowed Humphreys to kick for an attacking line-out.
Another Tigers mistake also helped create the third try 10 minutes later when a knock-on was quickly sent through the Ulster backs down the left and the ubiquitous Ward supported well to claim his second score.
Leicester seemed shell-shocked at this stage, a situation not helped by Humphreys kicking to extend Ulster's lead and Pez making a complete hash of a Leicester penalty when he failed to find touch to set up a catch and drive. The wind was howling but not as much as the kick. Richards' greatest disappointment, however, was "that we didn't score a try in the second half because we are too one-dimensional in our play and don't bully sides up front any more".
Ulster did, though, in the 46th minute and it was a beauty that earned the bonus point. Wallace broke swiftly from midfield and with a deft in-and-out step flat-footed the Tigers' defence before releasing the powerful Shane Stewart, who sprinted to the posts. It was a clean incision that wrapped up the game, and to the delight of the capacity 12,300-crowd put Ulster on top of the group.
"We'll enjoy tonight and deservedly so," said Alan Solomons, Ulster's director of rugby, "but on Monday we'll be back preparing for Leicester on Saturday." On current form there is not a better time to go there.
Ulster: Tries Stewart, Howe, Ward 2; Conversions Humphreys 2; Penalties Humphreys 3.
Ulster: P Wallace; J Topping, S Stewart (A Larkin, 76), P Steinmetz, T Howe; D Humphreys, N Doak; R Kempson, M Sexton, S Best, M Mustchin (W Brosnihan, 68), R Frost, A Ward, N Best (capt), R Wilson.
Leicester: J Van der Westhuyzen; N Baxter, O Smith (L Myring, 9), D Gibson (G Gelderbloom, 6th; S Vesty, 49), L Lloyd; R Pez, A Healey; G Rowntree, D West, D Morris (R Nebbett, 67), L Deacon (M Johnson, 52), B Kay, W Johnson, N Back, (capt) H Tuilagi (W Skinner, 60).
Referee: J Jutge ( France).