Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Tyrone Howe: Ulster can’t rest on their laurels

Paddy Jackson is one of Ulster's rising stars

I may be doing readers a disservice but I would wager that, before this summer, few of us were aware of the Olympic motto ‘Citius, altius, fortius’, or ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’. We know it now after sport’s version of the Greatest Show on Earth.

The Games left an indelible mark on all of us — it lit a flame. It was impossible not to be glued to the action or to feel inspired. We imagined ourselves in that same position.

We all wanted to be Usain Bolt, Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah, and I wonder whether, like me, you might confess to wondering whether there was a sport you could take up in the next four years that might get you to Rio?

The notion of legacy revolved around the aim of ‘Inspire a Generation’. It had an early victim. After months of inactivity I took the groundbreaking decision to do some proper exercise. Not just a run, but an interval session on the rugby pitch!

Everything seemed to be going well, yes fairly unpleasant but the buzz was back and the amount of sweat evidenced the level of effort. So, I cranked it up for the last lap. The result? Proof that the legacy was not meant for my generation — a pulled calf has enforced retirement to the sofa once again.

I expect that the Olympic motto has had a more realistically positive effect on the younger generations of Ulster rugby players, such as Paddy Jackson.

It will also have made the lives of those in charge of Ulster’s strength and conditioning a little bit easier this summer.

The words — faster, higher, stronger — will have leapt out at the players over the summer as they pushed themselves for another challenging, punishing and incredibly exciting season. Just imagine the mood in the gym — every bench press, chin-up, clean, timed sprint and counter-movement jump will have had an extra oomph, as the players aspired to greatness through the inspiration of what they were witnessing on television.

Of course, the Ulster rugby flame has been burning brightly for quite a while, with last season the highpoint with the achievement of a Heineken Cup final. This time last year we didn’t see it coming, but we loved every minute of the journey, and it has left us wanting more. Two years ago, a quarter-final defeat to Northampton hurt the players, but they learned from the experience and came back stronger.

This contributed directly to how the squad and coaches handled the pressure when in the same position last season.

They pushed on, rode their luck and while the performance in the final was below previous rounds, it was against a magnificent Leinster team and should in no way take away from the achievement of getting there.

With this season’s final taking place in the Aviva Stadium, it is obvious what the players want — to be back in the final and to prove that they have learned further lessons from their experiences of last season. Of course, European success cannot come out of a vacuum, and performances on the bigger stage have to be underpinned by incredibly solid domestic performances.

Too many ups and downs in the RaboDirect undermined the chances of the knockout stages in that competition.

Last season, supporters could forgive the players that as, for us, European rugby was the priority. But, as ever, each season the bar gets lifted higher and our expectations bear a direct correlation. The prerequisite in order to compete on both fronts is a large and quality resource of players.

Like football, the market for overseas players gets more and more competitive, so your home-grown conveyor belt of talent becomes ever more important.

In this regard, Ulster seems to be improving year on year with young players coming through, who are increasingly able to hold their own. They will also get more and more opportunities as the task of balancing human resource becomes ever more challenging.

Ulster rugby players have it all to play for this season. Almost lifting the greatest prize in European rugby will ensure that they aim high and do not give up. Despite the calf, neither will I — four years of beach volleyball practice lies ahead.

Rio here I come.

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