Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Tyrone Howe: The only way is up for Ulster

Was it really that much of a surprise that the two choirs battling it out for the title of “Last Choir Standing” last Saturday night came from Wales?

Last season, the resurgence of Welsh rugby, mainly through its national team, gave plenty of cause for singing in the valleys. Clearly, the Welsh regional teams will want to use this success and feel-good factor to push on this season with the Ospreys looking to lead the way.

It does raise the question, however, whether Ulster rugby supporters will be in such good voice come the end of this new season, or will it be more a case of being left ever so slightly flat and off-key.

From the pre-season fixtures, very few players can complain that they haven’t been given an opportunity to impress. One player who seemed to grab it more than most is young centre Darren Cave, who has shown glimpses of the sort of creative ability that Ulster have lacked for quite a while now. Another centre with a lot to prove, Rob Dewey, also seems to be back to full fitness and has made an impact every time he has been on the pitch. Physically imposing, his game has moved up a notch in terms of looking for opportunities to offload the ball in or after contact. He is one of the few who can unlock a defence.

However, for Ulster’s supporters, a sense of perspective is surely required.

In the loss against Bath, Ulster only scored one try. The points tally in a much-improved performance and victory over the Queensland Reds was subsequently equalled by Connacht and then doubled by Leinster, who scored 48 points. Then, only one try was scored in the loss to Worcester in the final match. While Ulster were by no means at full strength and failed to convert several more try-scoring opportunities, Worcester can hardly be regarded as one of the high flyers in the Guinness Premiership.

Against this background, it is interesting to see how some of the other pre-season matches have gone. Cardiff, who have grand ambitions, gave new Premiership contenders Northampton a hiding last weekend, Edinburgh, having already accounted for Wasps, defeated Bath, while Llanelli Scarlets beat Wasps away from home last weekend. If we didn’t know it already, this result confirms that Ulster will face the sternest of challenges on Friday night in their opening Magners League fixture against the Scarlets at Ravenhill.

As we look forward to supporting Ulster this season, somehow it feels like a journey into the unknown.

This is a squad with much to prove as it tries to rebuild its confidence after finishing second from bottom in last season’s Magners League, but at least Ulster seem to be at a far more stable and secure starting point this season and this will help the bolster the mental attitude of the players as they prepare for Friday night.

Matt Williams took over the Ulster reins at the start of the Six Nations with the main aim of securing Heineken Cup rugby for the team this season. Mission accomplished. It must be incredibly difficult joining a squad mid-season and having to sort out major problems both on and off the pitch. But he has now had a full pre-season with the squad, a settled management and coaching team and his own overseas signings in place. Now it is the time for the new coach and his players to deliver.

In some ways, Williams is in a no-lose situation. Anything better than second from bottom can be argued as progress, while it would be difficult to do as badly again in Europe. Nonetheless, the Ulster rugby public expects, and a noticeable rise in intensity and performance is the minimum requirement.

However, given the quality of the other Magners teams, it is unrealistic to expect Ulster to go from almost bottom to almost top in the one season. Somewhere in the middle is much more realistic and the Ulster rugby public may have to temper its level of expectation.

Above all, the first step in this process is to rebuild Ravenhill into the fortress it once was. Before the end of the year, Ulster has six out of its eight Magners League fixtures at home, with three coming before the first Heineken Cup match against Stade Francais in early October. If Ulster is going to have any chance of major progress in the Magners League and build up confidence going into the Heineken Cup, then the first half of the season is crucial. The way the fixtures have fallen, everything is in Ulster’s favour. Of course, there could be easier ways to start than against Llanelli, but then again, no longer are there any easy fixtures in the Magners League.

Having discussed the potential implications of the last few weeks of pre-season, it has to be said that these count for absolutely nothing when the whistle blows on Friday evening. Any sort of win would do, no matter how many points or tries are scored.

Winning is infectious and what could be better than leaving the pitch to a massive Ravenhill crowd in full chorus belting out that classic hit “Stand Up for the Ulstermen”. I know you can do it. Get us off to a good start boys.

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