Ulster looking good to keep driving on
Still a bit early to get excited — but what a great start to the Heineken Cup season.
As we in this neck of the woods know only too well, one swallow never makes a summer. Equally, the first weekend of Heineken Cup action seldom indicates what might unfold come the business end of this great competition.
Two wins out of two at home for the provinces and one out of two on the road represents a satisfactory harvest, yet it would be foolhardy not to identify room for improvement in all four performances.
The best was served first up at Ravenhill, where Ulster, despite being without Stephen Ferris, Nick Williams and Roger Wilson, their three most effective ball-carriers, dismantled Castres.
The precious bonus point try came two minutes into injury-time courtesy of Ruan Pienaar and, as one clever pitchside banner so cleverly described it, Castres had well and truly been ‘Ru-anned'.
Far be it from me to rain on the Ulster parade, but Pienaar, is presenting something of a dilemma to new coach Mark Anscombe.
In a nutshell, where does he play a man equally comfortable wearing No 9 or No 10?
It's a given that South Africa's first-choice scrum half will be the fulcrum to Ulster's dual trophy assault in the months ahead, but his position is not.
It's hard to see how Anscombe will justify the dropping of clear man of the match Paul Marshall for Friday night's trip to Glasgow — that just underlines the difficult job every head coach has.
From an Irish perspective, Declan Kidney cannot but be impressed with what he is seeing at Ulster, specifically in the form of Marshall and Paddy Jackson at nine and 10 respectively for a side on fire despite missing some key personnel.
Jackson is new on the scene and, at just 20, he oozes potential; Marshall, at a seasoned 27, is much closer to his prime.
Marshall, I am told by those at the heart of the Ulster scene, does not quite live up to his name. In other words, it is felt that he needs to exert greater control over games.
Well, on last Friday's impressive evidence, he's doing that and more.
What I see is another Colin Patterson (an Instonians, Ulster and Ireland scrum-half who toured South Africa with the Lions in 1980) and, at a time when Eoin Reddan is the only No 9 playing to the standard required, Marshall must surely be in the frame for an Ireland call-up next month.
Jackson is a bit raw, but his inclusion in the Wolfhounds squad to face Fiji in Limerick, along with Connacht's Kieran Marmion at scrum half, would be a brave step in the right direction by Kidney.
To that, add Iain Henderson, the versatile back-five forward so impressive with Ireland's U-20s in South Africa in the summer and so clearly at ease at Heineken Cup level at Ravenhill on Friday.
With New Zealander Jared Payne offering cutting edge at full back alongside Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble, Ulster are developing a back three as good as any — and they have the livewire Craig Gilroy on the bench.
They made hard work of securing the bonus, but with the big ball-carriers set to return, Ulster rugby has never been in better nick.