Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Tyrone Howe: Ruthless streak now needed from Ulster

Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin

Another decent performance and a victory for Ulster has steered the squad in the right direction towards the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup, which is now less than three weeks away.

Last Friday night was far from a perfect performance. Given the upper hand that Ulster maintained for much of the game, that elusive bonus point that dangled so tantalisingly in front of the players should have been in the bag. It may, however, be no bad thing that the players were sitting in their changing-room with a slight sense of anti-climax.

They know that there is more there and that they will have to be ruthless in the big games ahead. That is the challenge for them going forward — how to get the best out of themselves as individuals within the team context.

So, not perfect, but there were still real grounds for optimism. The season is incredibly fresh and Ulster's coaching staff are still in the process of putting in the foundations for what they hope will be a long and sustained assault on the Magners League and European rugby.

The challenge for them is to win while these building blocks are being put in place. So far, so good.

Paul Marshall delivered the perfect riposte to anyone who thinks that the player will exit stage door left simply and quietly as Ruan Pienaar appears in the No 9 shirt. This brings me back to David Humphreys' statement at the start of the season that he believed this Ulster squad is the strongest since his involvement with the province.

The early couple of games have demonstrated some of Humphreys' thinking in this regard. The starting XV is strong and the bench has a much more solid look to it. The appearance of the triumvirate of Botha, Best and Wannenburg from the bench with almost 20 minutes to go must have been disheartening for an Edinburgh team that was already chasing the game.

What a strong squad does is instil greater competition for places. It must be a huge driving force behind the performances of scrum half Paul Marshall, which have been getting better and better. This is the best possible backdrop for Pienaar to enter the scene. The Springbok ace knows what is expected of him not only from Ulster supporters, but, more importantly, from within his team-mates.

It was marvellous to see Andrew Trimble back on the pitch. Teams need players who encapsulate and embody the core of a team. All things being equal in terms of rugby skill, it is more a statement of attitude, a mindset.

In the pack Stephen Ferris has that galvanising presence in exactly the same way that Andy Ward used to in his inspirational days as Ulster captain.

As an ex-winger, my attention naturally gets drawn to the threequarter line and in Trimble there is a hunger, a rawness and a competitiveness that sets the tone for the rest of the backline. There are plenty of areas that the Ireland wing must continue to work on, but for sheer cussedness he stands out a mile.

There might have been a dropped bonus point at the weekend, but I am certain that had you offered coach Brian

McLaughlin a three-win start and the team's current League position, he would have accepted it readily.

There have been a few upsets so far in the Magners and it appears that some of the relative and historic gaps between certain teams are closing.

There will be more surprise results this season, which means that every victory that Ulster can register is another block and dollop of cement in the superstructure that we all hope the squad is building.

Within the preparation for each match there is always some sort of sub-plot. The narrative for this week's game away to Connacht is that last season Ulster did not manage to string four victories together. At this early stage the players have the opportunity to go one better and victory is vital to build momentum and confidence.

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