At the start of every new season one can expect resounding statements of intent from players and coaches alike.
How much these actually come to fruition is another thing, as it stands to reason that not every team can or will have the success they crave so badly.
The rhetoric has been strong within Ulster ranks with Operations Director David Humphreys stating that this is the strongest Ulster squad in a decade. If anyone is qualified to make this assertion, it is Ulster’s former talisman. In the number 10 shirt Humphreys not only operated at the highest level but enjoyed longevity that precious few achieve. Supporters have every right, therefore, to feel optimistic as they look forward to the 2010/11 season, which kicks off this Friday evening against the Ospreys.
One might be forgiven if a liberal dose of caution is sprinkled over such heightened anticipation. Finishing positions of ninth, eighth and eighth in the last three Magners League seasons has been a massive anti-climax. Each season was marked with bright performances, particularly in the early stages, only to fall away with alarming rapidity as the season entered its latter stages. In short, supporters have held these high hopes before and ended up enormously disappointed.
The first target should be to achieve a base level of consistency in performance that lasts until the end of the season. There will, of course, be highs and lows, achievements and setbacks on the way, but overall the capitulation that we witnessed last season cannot be allowed to happen again.
This is the second season for the coaches and majority of players. The squad is no longer one of inheritance, rather of design. There are no excuses. In fact, the challenge is arguably a mental one, and this is for me where the overseas signings will have the biggest impact.
Ulster has long had an association with South Africa with players such as Warren Brosnihan and Robbie Kempson and, of course, the indomitable coach Alan Solomons. South Africans don't do capitulation, it is not in their makeup — a certain brutality and inflexibility might be a potential weakness, but it is a small price to pay for strong-minded individuals. Direct, physical and mentally tough, it only takes one or two to set the tone, but in the pack at least, Ulster at full strength has the potential to boss and bully the best. Add to that the guile and class of Springbok scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar and you have a formidable platform.
A key area of concern is whether Ulster can score enough points to get into winning positions. Individual challenges lie ahead for whoever plays at outhalf, in the centre or at fullback. We saw rare glimpses of quality last season which suggested great things lay ahead, but those returning players really need to step up and show that they have developed in the last two seasons.
Whether this is the strongest squad of players in a decade can and will only be confirmed on the pitch. Under Solomons, Ravenhill was a true fortress and teams hated the fixture that read “Ulster away”. The home of Ulster Rugby must regain this aura and European knock-out rugby, whether Heineken or Amlin, must be achieved. As far as the Magners goes, at a national level all eyes are on the 2011 Rugby World Cup, so international players will be rested along the way. This highlights the question further — how strong is the squad?
The start is profoundly difficult against the Magners champions, the Ospreys, but what a way to start. The Welsh side will hardly be into their stride, so now is the best time to be facing them. Shock the champions in front of your home crowd — that would be the best possible way to launch the season. The Ospreys are not big fans of Ravenhill and there is invariably an edge to the game.
Getting in the faces of the Tommy Bowe-inspired galacticos, putting them under pressure and exposing their ring-rustiness will get the crowd on their feet and victory is possible. For Ulster, the 2010-2011 season could be the most interesting for many years.