Five hours before Saturday evening’s kick-off at the Liberty Stadium, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin told me: “I just hope we turn up and play.”
It was a reference to Ulster’s hugely disappointing performance and result six days earlier when they went down 23-6 to Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade.
On Saturday evening Ulster did show up, registering a memorable, wholly unexpected but thoroughly deserved victory over Ospreys opponents featuring more big names than a Hollywood blockbuster.
By doing so they proved that there is talent in this Ulster squad. That fact having been established, now they must work towards achieving consistency.
David Humphreys made the point immediately after the Ospreys game. “That has to be our level of performance on a consistent basis. Consistency is what it is all about,” he said. Nothing euphoric about his post-match words; instead a typically calm, level-headed assessment of things. He, McLaughlin and coaching assistants Jeremy Davidson and Neil Doak are realists. That collective pragmatism, coupled with their players’ desire to progress, will be central to Ulster’s development.
Successful League campaigns are about getting enough good results over a period of months. The fare need not always be pretty; successful clubs do not necessarily serve up flowing football each time they line out. But what they do produce routinely is a level of performance good enough to ensure that they win a lot more than they lose.
They achieve the status of being a top club by virtue of habitually proving themselves difficult to beat and capable of delivering a positive result regularly.
Last season, remember, Munster lost four Magners League matches, two of them to Ulster who beat them handsomely, home and away. But while at the end of the series Ulster finished eighth, Munster were champions having amassed 27 points more than their northern rivals.
While the feel-good buzz that came from those victories over Munster in 2008/09 is undeniable, what counts most is consistency. Which Ulster supporter would not have foregone that brace of wins over Munster had they been able to exchange them for the Magners League crown?
Note, too, that the points Ulster earned by twice beating Munster were the same as those they dropped in the course of two defeats by Newport Gwent Dragons — who went on to finish second-bottom.
And last season, having just hammered Munster 37-11 at a packed Thomond Park, Ulster lost three of their next four matches, the exception having been a 21-10 Heineken European Cup victory over Harlequins in their Pool 4 clash at Ravenhill.
Inconsistency was a flaw McLaughlin identified as being in need of correction upon taking over the hotseat vacated by Matt Williams. ‘Consistency’ continues to be a watch word with him. That’s good.
On Saturday, having steered Ulster to their first win in 15 attempts against Welsh opponents, he established a much-needed base camp. Now his goal will be to see his side keep climbing upwards.