Is this Ulster side the best ever?
These are early days and, as things stand at this moment, Ulster have won nothing more than 13 matches on the trot.
While that represents a magnificent new record —their previous best run of straight victories was 10, achieved by the class of 1999 — it does not translate as silverware.
The heroes of ’99 spanned the divide between the end of amateurism and the start of professional rugby, of course. And it is difficult — some would say impossible — to make comparisons between things then and now.
That is true of all codes; was Rod Laver better than Roger Federer or George Best superior to Lionel Messi, or Jack Nicklaus less brilliant than Rory McIlroy?
Comparisons are straightforward enough if you use trophies and titles as the yardstick; simply by counting what’s in the cabinet, you get your answer. But is it the right one? Because, on paper, that would make Manchester United’s treble-winning side of 1998-99 much better than the original Busby Babes, and that’s a conclusion many would dispute. The fact of the matter is that it is impossible to make meaningful comparisons between different eras.
In terms of fitness levels, gym-honed strength, diet-fuelled stamina, conditioning aimed at peaking at precisely the right moments, knowledge of the opposition gained from minute video analysis and best use of eight replacements — an option not available to previous generations — there can be no doubt that the current Ulster rugby players enjoy benefits unknown to those who went before them. That said, all of those they face are better prepared, too.
Already people have begun to talk in terms of this being Ulster’s best-ever team, albeit that there is nothing on the shelf to substantiate that claim. So on what is that suggestion based?
Well, this on-going 13-match winning run is pretty persuasive. But it is the manner in which it has been achieved that makes it particularly impressive.
Last month’s Guinness Series saw Ulster’s Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Tom Court, Declan Fitzpatrick, Craig Gilroy, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Paul Marshall, Andrew Trimble and Dan Tuohy answering Ireland’s call.
Rory Best and Stephen Ferris — both of whom would have been on Irish duty — were injured and, therefore, unavailable, while Ruan Pienaar was with the Springboks.
And fellow-South African, Johann Muller — Ulster’s outstanding captain — was absent for four RaboDirect PRO12 matches as a result of suffering a serious thumb injury in the Heineken Cup win against Glasgow.
A week later, against Dragons, Best suffered a neck injury which ended up sidelining him for five weeks. Ferris last played on November 2.
Remarkably, Ulster took it all in their stride and kept the winning run going by beating Dragons, Edinburgh, Zebre, Treviso and Scarlets despite the loss of so many first-choice starters.
Friday night’s destruction of mighty Northampton Saints on their own Franklin’s Gardens pitch was the latest example of this side’s power and class.
But the best EVER to represent the province? What do the experts think?
“These are early days, but they do have the potential to be the greatest Ulster side ever, there’s no doubt about that. But we aren’t comparing like with like, that’s impossible because of teams being from different eras. We, for example, went for what was it, 40 matches without defeat?
“What we can say is that we’re enjoying watching a great Ulster team. I think they have been evolving over the past few years and I think that’s to the great credit of all those who have been involved that it’s now beginning to show its potential whether it be David Humphreys, Brian McLaughlin and now Mark Anscombe.
“They’re starting to show some essential to a really good team and that’s the ability to win on days when you’re playing badly. Then, in the big matches, they’re showing that they are able to raise their game.
They did well last year in getting through to the final and these are early days in trying to get there once again. But they are better than they were last season so I’d think in the same match this year we’d see a different outcome.”
Trevor Ringland (former Ulster, Ireland & Lions wing)
“I think a really important underlying factor with this Ulster side is knowing that if they don’t perform there is somebody itching to get into their place. I think that maybe gives them something that we haven’t always had.
“Competition keeps everybody on their toes; look how well Paddy Wallace played after Luke Marshall having done well with Ireland during the autumn series. Iain Henderson has got his break, too, so Stevie Ferris will be very keen to get back. Nobody really is sure of their position and that really for me has been the big driving force behind them.
“They all want to play and they know there’s at least one person in every position who wants to step up, so week after week that is driving everybody on. Now there is depth and quality, too.
“But how do you pick one team out when they’re from different generations or how do you pick out individuals? The way they’re playing at the minute marks them out as being a very special team. Winning this year’s final certainly would confirm their place as a great side.”
Simon Best (former Ulster and Ireland prop and captain of the 2006 Celtic League-winning team)
“A similarity I see in this Ulster side and the one in which I played is that there’s a steely resolve. Our team of the 1980s actually went out with an inner belief that we could win.
“Another two things where I see similarities is the presence of key skills and experienced players able to give very good leadership. They have got their mo-jo and they’re certainly on very good form. The positive approach they showed against Northampton, along with that steely resolve, meant they just weren’t going to lose. They got the bonus point as well.
“We had belief and so do these guys. There’s a lot of experience there — a lot of internationals — and they’re all hitting form at the right time. If something goes wrong, heads don’t drop. There’s great encouragement and there’s a work ethic.
“Johann Muller is like big Willie (Anderson) in many ways, John Afoa reminds me of Jimmy McCoy, young (Iain) Henderson is playing out of his skin and you can just see all the units coming together.
“They’re enjoying playing, as we did. Us in our prime against them? It would be a great match.”
Philip Rainey (Ballymena, Ulster & Ireland full-back in the 1980s)
“The performance at the weekend against Northampton was better than any other display I’ve seen in Europe. They have already established themselves as one of the best sides in Europe so now they’ve got to keep building on that.
“There is strength throughout the whole team, the basics are good and there’s flair and pace. And I would add that the players are grounded. There’s competition, too, so that helps keep everybody focused. Nobody is taking their place for granted.
“They are confident, too, and confidence is very important in any good side. Confidence comes from success which is based on winning. But even though they have been winning matches, they recognise that there are plenty of areas they can improve upon, so they are willing to work in order to bring that about and make themselves a better, stronger team.
“Those are some of the things they have in common with the 1999 team. But there are some things that are different, too, the main one being that there are world-class players in this team. Even though we won the European Cup, I’m not sure that was true of us.”
Allen Clarke (hooker in the 1999 side and now Ulster’s Elite Performance Development Manager)
“I get irritated when people start talking about the best team ever, the best player ever, the best goal ever, the best try ever. It’s nonsense; you cannot realistically compare teams or individuals from different periods. Who could possibly know if this Ulster team is better than the team that won 10 inter-provincial titles in a row?
“All you can do is make comparisons between a team and their peers. A few years ago, when you measured their results against others in the Celtic League-Magners League and the Heineken Cup, they weren’t doing well. Fact.
“After the 1999 final things went downhill in relation to the other teams. But in the last three or four years, definitely there has been progression.
“But you don’t waste time trying to measure this Ulster team against an earlier one.
“How did Ulster do last season in comparison to the previous 10? How are they doing this year compared to last year? Those are the questions you look at rather than measuring the current Ulster team against one from the 1980s or 90s.”
David Haslett (Ulster coach before handing over to his Heineken Cup-winning successor Harry Williams)
“You cannot realistically compare teams from the amateur and professional eras. What I will say is that this is undoubtedly the best Ulster side since the game went professional. But as David Irwin’s team of the mid-1980s?
“When you look at Matthews and Carr, Anderson and McCall, McCoy and Stevie Smith, David and Alan Irwin, John Hewitt, Ringland, Crossan, Philip Rainey, to me had there been a European Cup then, that team was good enough to have won it.
“It was the best provincial side in Ireland; they went 10 years unbeaten. They beat Australia, Fiji and Tonga and just about all-comers at Ravenhill, though they didn’t travel to many apart from inter-pros.
“So yes, this is the best Ulster team of the professional era. Would they beat a touring international side, albeit a mid-week version? The answer is probably.
“When they beat Leicester Tigers last year, it was their biggest defeat — home or away — ever in the Heineken Cup. That was a stunning performance. If they put the Saints to the sword in the same manner on Saturday, that will allay a lot of myths.”
Jim Neilly (the voice of BBC NI rugby)
“Every good side needs a good spine and Ulster have that — Rory Best, Johann Muller, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Ruan Pienaar, you’re starting to develop a 10 now (Paddy Jackson) and you’ve got a great 15 (Jared Payne). That’s a fabulous spine.
“You’ve got a depth of leaders who can control things and keep everybody focused and that’s what you need if you’re to be successful.
“We had that and we developed a winning habit to the point where there wasn’t a team in the world — and I mean internationals — that we were scared of.
“The Ulster team that I played in got into a run of matches where we didn’t lose. We went 17 or 18 matches unbeaten and when finally we lost to Queensland we had six or seven guys missing.
“We didn’t have the number of games that these guys play, of course, though we were amateurs. But the thing that stands out about this Ulster side is the belief they have. They don’t give up, they play until the last second and that comes from a winning mentality.
“Best ever? The really big tests are still ahead.”
Willie Anderson (former Ulster & Ireland lock of the great ’80s side)
“I think the current Ulster team are probably one of the best-balanced teams over the years. If you go through the Ulster team at the minute you won’t find weak links or anything like that — and it’s not necessarily just the 15, it’s the squad. It’s certainly the strongest the squad has been for a long, long time.
“I’d say it’s one of the best put-together squads and that there’s real potential. They’ve been together now a wee while, have grown together and the guys they’ve brought in have made a considerable impact which has spread across the team. So, I’m confident they’ll continue to go forward and I certainly believe they’re good enough to lift silverware in the next year or two if they sustain that.
“It hasn’t happened in the past few weeks that all of a sudden they’re a different team. This has been a three-year process. The big thing now is that they are becoming consistent and they’re able to win ugly. The 1999 cup-winning team had that and this is the first time since then that I’ve seen an Ulster side with the same sort of resolve.
“These guys know how to tough out a game and it’s when the chips are down that’s when you see the true colours of your team. This is the first time since ’99 that I’ve seen an Ulster side able to deal with it when they have to.
“Obviously there’s a long way to go and they haven’t won anything yet, but there’s resolve there, there’s strength in depth, they have flair and, if need be, they can grind it out. Those are things all teams need if they are to win things.”
Andy Ward (former Ulster & Ireland flanker who starred in the 1999 side)