Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Magners League: Rivals wary of Ulster

Johann Muller

Ulster's recruitment of a trio of Springboks and the return to Ravenhill of one of their own old boys has not gone unnoticed.

With David Humphreys’ impressive powers of persuasion and negotiation having netted South Africans Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg, as well as wooing Tim Barker back from Glasgow, they are looking better equipped than for some time.

A decade, by Humphreys’ reckoning. Few would argue with that assessment.

On paper it’s a more than useful squad. So good, in fact, that it has drawn compliments from unexpected quarters.

Adversaries who have identified Ulster as a side capable of doing damage in 2010/11 include Munster ace Ronan O’Gara and Ospreys head coach Sean Holley.

O’Gara had Brian McLaughlin’s side marked down as Heineken Cup hopefuls last season. And given their recruitment since then, he sees no reason to revise that opinion.

While he does not go quite so far as Ulster Chief Executive Shane Logan, O’Gara’s endorsement is significant.

On stepping into the CE’s job back in February, Logan said: “We want to be world’s best — best results, competing for Heineken Cups winning Heineken Cups and better than the Super 14 sides.

“Whatever plan we put together has to deliver Ulster being top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and indeed the world.”

Most who frequent Ravenhill on Friday nights would regard a Magners League top four spot as being a necessary starting point in order to confirm the attainability of such a lofty goal.

For the majority, that — and a place in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup — would suffice. For now at any rate.

Signing Pienaar, Muller and Wannenburg should help Ulster with those objectives.

That fact has not been lost on Holley. Speaking at last week’s Magners League launch at the Millennium Stadium, the Ospreys’ coach predicted: “Ulster have shown huge ambition by signing a player like Pienaar.

“And they have brought in a couple of other very good players as well — like Muller (pictured) and Wannenburg — so I think they could be a side to be reckoned with.

“I know we had two hard matches against them last season; they beat us in Swansea and then ran us very close in Belfast.”

The champions, who return to Ravenhill for Friday night’s Magners League opener, boast 27 full internationals, one of whom, former All Blacks flanker Jerry Collins, has just been declared fit following double-surgery to rectify shoulder and knee problems.

He had been expected to be out until October.

Ospreys — the first club to have won the Magners League three times — now are 3/1 shots to create further history by retaining their title.

Ulster — fifth, ninth, eighth and eighth in the past four seasons — are 16/1 to end their ML famine. So they have a point to prove. And they know what a marker victory against Ospreys would put down.

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