Brian McLaughlin’s much-improved Ulster side’s inclusion in the Magners League play-off semi-finals confirms a notable comeback.
They have regained much of the pride which had taken such a battering since they won the Magners League in 2005/06.
It all went belly-up after that, witness fifth, ninth, eighth and eighth-place finishes in the 10-clubs’ race in the following four campaigns.
Twelve months ago Ulster entered the home straight glancing fearfully over their shoulders lest Connacht overhauled them to clinch Irish rugby’s third Heineken Cup spot. With two matches of the 2009/10 programme remaining, that threat was very real.
Then a totally unexpected 37-25 bonus-point away victory over Edinburgh — coupled with Connacht’s crushing 58-10 defeat by Scarlets in Llanelli where they rested players for the following week’s Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final against Toulon — meant that when the westerners came to Ravenhill for the final game last season, Ulster were beyond their reach.
Thus McLaughlin’s first campaign in charge ended with Ulster surviving as the third-placed of the four Irish provinces, giving them a foundation on which to build.
They have done so, with Friday night’s victory over the Dragons at Rodney Parade proving the point if you’ll pardon the pun, a point having been all they needed from that fixture to be sure of inclusion in the Magners League semi-finals.
Significantly, Ulster wanted more, a fact underlined in the course of an excellent first 40 minutes during which they clocked up three tries courtesy of Nevin Spence who bagged a brace and Pedrie Wannenburg who got the other touchdown.
But for a dramatic deterioration in the weather which completely changed the nature of the match after half-time they might very well have had a bonus-earning fourth try.
The fact that they did not manage it was more than offset by a huge plus in the form of an excellent post-interval defensive display. Having dominated as an attacking force before the break, Ulster then showed their ability to defend, too. Their second-half display in that respect was magnificent.
Everybody contributed and McLaughlin’s skill in having seemingly seamlessly woven a trio of big-name South Africans into the fabric that is Ulster Rugby is deserving of accolades. McLaughlin has done — and is doing — a remarkable job.
Just as he has earned the province’s rugby public’s admiration, so too have those three South Africans, namely Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Pedrie Wannenburg.
In his capacity as Director of Rugby, David Humphreys wrought a miracle in persuading World Cup winner Pienaar, former Springboks captain Muller and 20 times-capped Wannenburg to leave the Southern Hemisphere’s Super 14 and Currie Cup for the Magners League and Heineken Cup.
From day one they have espoused the cause, proving to have been superb captures whose professionalism, wed to their skill, big match nous and winning mentality, have added richly to Ulster’s make-up.
Little over three weeks ago McLaughlin’s men made their way to the RDS having just suffered a Heineken Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Northampton Saints.
There they promptly found themselves trailing 17-3 after a traumatic opening 13 minutes in which they conceded three tries. It finished 34-26, which was considerably better than had been feared after that horrific start. But they emerged from Dublin 4 with season-ending injuries to Irish international backs Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble, and little likelihood of Springboks prop BJ Botha playing again before heading off to join Munster.
To this add the fact that Lions flanker Stephen Ferris’s knee injury means he has not played since Ulster’s Heineken Cup rout of Aironi in Viadana on January 22. Yet even though their away record against Leinster is horrendous, Ulster cannot wait to return to Dublin. Why?
Unfinished business. Such is their self-belief that they are wholly convinced they can make the Magners League play-off final. What a difference a year has made.
Ulster Juniors kept in the Inter-provincial crown chase with a hard-fought 26-24 win over bottom of the table Munster at Limavady on Saturday.
However they need to gain a winning bonus point in their final game at Leinster and hope that Connacht fail to win any points against Munster.
Ulster bagged tries from Ryan Wilson, Stephen Robinson, Andy Kennedy and Matt Wright with Johnny Steenson’s dependable boot keeping the home side just out of Munster’s reach.