With the New Year upon us, it is an opportunity to look ahead. But a worthwhile first step might be to pause and reflect on the last 12 months.
How good was Ulster’s performance in 2012 and what can we expect for the remainder of this season and further ahead?
Last May, even though the performance against Leinster did not do full justice to the players, to make it to last season’s Heineken Cup final was a magnificent achievement.
The various factors of nerve, skill, resilience, an ability to take chances, and the odd bit of luck all played their part at various times in the European campaign.
The chances of Ulster making it as far in this season’s competition will depend on exactly these same factors.
It could have ended much sooner for Ulster, had it not been for an amazing defensive effort down in Thomond Park in the quarterfinals.
The victory against Munster meant so much more than simply getting through to the semi-finals.
More importantly, the hierarchy within Irish rugby got shaken up.
The test for this season is to shake up the hierarchy further by dislodging Leinster as the premier force. Just before Christmas the first salvo was fired with Ulster’s victory at Ravenhill.
It will have reinforced self-confidence particularly in the aftermath of the disappointment of defeat at home to Northampton Saints, but Ulster cannot yet look Leinster fully in the eye until victory is achieved in a big knockout match.
The opportunity may or may not come this season but there can be little doubt that this goal is increasingly within the ability and grasp of the players.
What augurs well for the rest of the season and beyond is that Ulster is a team that learns from its experiences.
This blends in well with an approach focused on continuous improvement.
Much depends on the resources at one’s disposal, and the player base this season has developed both in terms of breadth and depth.
Ulster’s chances have been bolstered by the return of Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson (pictured), the introduction of Nick Williams, the renaissance of Jared Payne, the further development of Chris Henry, Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Iain Henderson and Craig Gilroy.
I do other players a disservice by not mentioning them — there are plenty more — but, in short, an impressive feature is the competition for places and how well players want to do when they get the opportunity. Even in the Thomond Park arena last weekend the substitutes came on and shone in a battling defeat against a vastly experienced Munster side.
New coach Mark Anscombe deserves much credit for the way in which he has handled himself.
In true Kiwi style he has come in and got on with the job without any fuss.
With 14 victories, domestic and European pole positions, he could easily draw attention to himself and the job that he is doing.
The fact is that he doesn’t need to — the players and results speak for themselves.
So what can we expect from the rest of the season?
Ulster should make the playoffs of the RaboDirect and with three points separating the next five teams plenty of sparks will be flying.
In the knockout stages Ulster may still have to triumph over one of Munster or Leinster or both to have a chance of lifting some silverware.
In Europe, I have a feeling that the Ulster players are going to have to produce another enormous away victory.
If it doesn’t come against Castres in the final group stage, it will probably have to come in the quarter-finals.
If it was achieved in Round Six, home advantage in the quarter-finals would put destiny firmly in Ulster’s own hands.
We have seen an increased self-knowledge and awareness developing within the Ulster camp.
The squad knows that it is blessed with an array and depth of talent. The players know that they are difficult to beat, but equally the Saints defeat taught a salutary lesson that if the team does not play well enough it can and will be beaten.
However, in the last four months the best ever start to a season tells those same players, and us, that when on form Ulster has the might, skill and character to take on and beat anyone in Europe.
The challenge is to maintain this momentum and continue this development. The signs are good for further success.