David Humphreys, who led Ulster to their sole Heineken Cup triumph in 1999, has warned against over-confidence as the team face another season of European rugby.
Two victories and a draw in three pre-season friendlies, followed by five wins from five competitive starts and a place at the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 table as a result — with a game in hand, too — appears to have some supporters starting to believe that qualification from Pool 4 should be little more than a formality.
But Ulster’s Director of Rugby is having none of that.
“In Europe, underestimating anyone you play against is a recipe for disaster,” he insisted.
But as well as urging caution, he highlighted the quality of the players to have joined last season’s beaten Heineken Cup finalists, who are grouped with Castres — tonight’s visitors to Ravenhill — Glasgow and Northampton this time around.
“We have had a good start to the season. We have been fairly injury-free and of the players that we have brought in, Roger Wilson is about to come back from injury, Nick Williams — who we signed from Aironi — has made a huge impact and obviously Tommy Bowe is coming back from what was a long-term injury.
“So in terms of our squad and our depth we are more competitive,” he said.
“We have made a number of changes in our coaching set-up and that has taken a little bit of time over the summer, but we’re starting to show a different style of play.
“It’s very hard to judge,” was his stance on whether league form offers a Heineken Cup form guide.
“I think if you ask anybody if the RaboDirect or the English Premiership is any gauge to how you’re going to perform in Europe they would tell you, ‘No, not necessarily,” Humphreys said.
And while cleverly avoiding being drawn into the war currently being waged by English and French clubs over what they view as being the PRO12’s over-representation in the Heineken Cup, Humphreys — displaying the sort of fleet-footedness he showed as a player — simultaneously managed to beat the drum for his own province, Ireland’s other three and the Union by which all four are governed.
“If you try and take an objective view, the Irish system seems to have worked pretty well at Heineken Cup level, it has worked pretty well at provincial level and at international level there have been some good days, but probably not as many as we’d like.
“So I think our system and the structures that we have in place are productive in getting our players ready to play Heineken Cup rugby and international rugby,” he said.
Explaining the system’s raison d’etre, Humphreys stressed: “The Irish national team takes precedence over everything else.”
He also highlighted the fact that resting players tends to be at the behest of the IRFU so that they are in the best possible shape to perform on the international stage, rather than provinces anxious to protect them for deployment in Heineken Cup games.
“At the same time, by doing that, it has allowed the provinces to bring through young players and give them game-time which ultimately allows them to build their depth of squad,” Humphreys added.