The fizz might have been taken out of Ulster’s final match of the season against Connacht, but it does represent the final opportunity to ensure that Ulster, on paper at least, match the similar standing of last season.
While I have always felt that Ulster is a superior side to their Western rivals and would win in a one-off situation, Connacht’s performance last Friday against French giants Toulon certainly makes me relieved that they are not coming to Ravenhill with realistic hopes for Heineken Cup qualification.
This team can fight and, arguably, in a weekend of disappointment for Irish provinces, it was Connacht’s performance in the Challenge Cup that caught the eye most.
It was a classic case of the haves and have not’s of European rugby, the artisans against the aristocrats, the privileged against the primitive — but Connacht made a mockery of the fact that Toulon boast an annual budget of 16.5m euro compared to their own meagre 2.5m euro allowance.
This side is packed full of character, conviction and commitment. It is incredible to think that, in the course of the match, the players made 160 tackles against powerful, explosive runners.
If, on the rare occasion that a tackle was missed, there was always someone to scramble to make it at the second attempt. The defence was only breached once and this had less to do with Connacht as with the poor decision-making of the usually excellent referee Wayne Barnes.
Liverpool’s coach, Rafa Benitez, said before his team’s Premiership match against Chelsea at the weekend, that his team had neither physically nor mentally recovered from their Europa League semi-final to be expected to mount a serious challenge to Chelsea.
Prophetic words as even Steven Gerrard’s concentration slipped to open the door.
While Michael Bradley will not be as prematurely defeatist, surely his and his players’ batteries must be running near to empty.
Bradley deserves a sainthood for his sustained patience under the most trying of circumstances — Mark McCall, Matt Williams, and Brian McLaughlin never had it as tough as the Corkman. The Connacht coaching staff and players deserve the greatest of respect. The best way that Ulster can show that respect is by going out to play the best rugby that they can produce rather than stumbling to a scrappy performance and expected victory.
That would see Ulster finish in the same eighth position as last season with a similar seven victories. Once again, the season has been marked with inconsistency and underperformance.
A first season in charge is always difficult simply because you inherit a squad and have to unpick the systems that were there before and lay down your own. Time is not on your side.
Therefore, McLaughlin and his coaching team will get the benefit of the doubt after season one. Next year there are no excuses and marked improvement is essential otherwise the critics will become more and more vociferous.
On the positive side, there have been games which have given glimpses of the sort of quality of which the team is capable.
The most notable game has to be the Heineken victory against Stade Francais, where ambition, discipline and execution came together to bring the Ravenhill crowd to its their feet and the French to their knees, and their fingers.
My try of the season was scored by Andrew Trimble, who provided the catalyst for an historic first Heineken victory on English soil against Bath. It showed explosive pace, confidence and desire — the winger’s hunger and determination, in particular throughout the second half of the season when the performances of many others dipped, makes him one of my players of the season.
Overstatement of the season goes to new CEO, Shane Logan, who claimed that his vision was that Ulster would be the best in the world.
After a second successive season in eighth position, a top four finish in the Magners League and knockout stages of the Heineken Cup would do the rest of us quite nicely.
Best good news story of the Ulster season was quite literally that — the comeback of Rory Best. A serious neck operation had many wondering whether Ulster’s hooker would ever step on a pitch again.
To see Best not only returning for Ulster but also starting for Ireland in the Six Nations is testament to the medical treatment he received and the spirit and character of the player himself.
I can think of no better way to end the season than to give Ulster’s captain a fitting performance and victory to cap what has been a remarkable year of personal challenge and ultimate triumph.