The wait is finally over. Tonight another Magners League campaign gets underway at Ravenhill, where Ulster host last term’s champions, Ospreys.
Bring it on.
Ospreys coach Sean Holley spoke for everyone when he said: “We’re all really looking forward to just getting on with it now.”
His sentiments echo those of his Ulster counterpart, Brian McLaughlin, and captain Rory Best who this week made it |obvious that they too are itching to get started.
Holley said: “Ulster look as though they’ve really gone for it this year. They’ve recruited heavily from the southern hemisphere, and will definitely be a tough nut to crack.
“Ravenhill is never an easy place to go, particularly for the opening game. I wouldn’t imagine it being any different this time.
“It’s going to be a tough evening to start the season, but it’s good to be focussing on match day again after a good pre-season. Kick-off can’t come soon enough.”
Clearly he anticipates a tough test; Ulster are determined to live up to his expectations.
The home crowd will be out in force for what is Ulster’s first competitive fixture since May 7, when they chalked up their second successive bonus-point win by trouncing Connacht 41-10, a superb encore to their 37-25 victory over Edinburgh at Murrayfield two weeks earlier.
A five-try display followed by one in which they ran in half-a-dozen underlined just what Ulster are capable of producing. Their frustration last season stemmed from their failure to do it consistently.
Consistency has been the pre-season watchword.
The likelihood of Ulster being able to achieve it has been boosted significantly by the addition to the squad of Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenburg, and Tim Barker, all of whom have impressed greatly since signing.
With Springboks half-back Ruan Pienaar having enlisted, too, the Ravenhill faithful are positively tingling at the prospect of seeing him play behind a pack boasting forwards of the calibre of Best, Tom Court, Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry, Dan Tuohy and a quartet of fellow-South Africans in Muller, Wannenburg, BJ Botha, and Robbie Diack.
While Botha, Henry, and Tuohy are absent tonight and Court is on the bench, Best, Muller, Barker, Ferris, and Wannenburg all start in what is a strong-looking Ulster pack, whose ability to win quality possession will determine the outcome.
Captain Best this week oozed confidence in the personnel when he said: “We feel we have a pack and the firepower to do something in this league.
“Now it is entirely up |to ourselves whether we want to grasp the opportunity.”
Those will be the sentiments of the thousands who frequent Ravenhill want to hear.
Tonight’s showdown against last season’s champions is the perfect match to measure themselves at the start of the season. It also offers Ulster an opportunity to make a very bold statement of intent.
Ospreys aren’t at full strength and Ulster won’t get a better opportunity to upstage them. Take Mike Phillips, Adam Jones, Tommy Bowe, Duncan Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones, and Tom Prydie out of any panel and it is obvious that they will be missed.
“We’re able to put a strong team out and we are confident we can go out there and compete, despite the restrictions and complications that injury and international duty bring with them,” Holley said |yesterday.
“Clearly, with some of the injuries we’ve got and the make-up of our squad, it’s a necessity in the case of some of our internationals that they have to play this week.
“It’s not ideal, but when you take one or two players out of the equation with injury then it leaves us a bit short.”
But don’t cry too hard for them; Ospreys have 27 internationals on their books, after all.
Pointing to the inclusion of 16 times-capped Welsh lock Ian Evans, his rhetorical question was: “There aren’t many 6’9” players around in Wales are there?
“He’s a physical presence, and a fully fit, fully-flying Ian Evans is a real asset. He brings a bit of an edge, as well as his obvious height in the set piece, so it’s great to see Ian there.
“He’s had a good pre-season, and he’s grown in confidence as it’s gone on. It’s a clean slate for him and he feels fresh, fit, and ready to go.”
Significantly, though, Ulster’s line-out targets since the arrival of Muller, Barker, and Wannenburg was something thrower Best was keen to highlight.
“It’s great to be able to look down the line and see so many |options,” he enthused.
Tonight Ulster will try to reach for the sky.
What a boost it will give them if they manage to take this particularly prized scalp.