With the autumn internationals done and dusted, Ulster are in a good place. A very good place.
Played 11, won 11 is their record since the start of the season, with the players who were not on international duty having kept the train on the tracks by beating Zebre and — on Friday night — Treviso, thereby completing a difficult away double against the two Italian franchises in the space of five days.
With their next test being Sunday’s date away to Scarlets, that longer than usual turn-around is timely. On the downside, however, they will then be back in action the following Friday when they line out against Northampton Saints in the first of their back-to-back Heineken Cup ties with the Aviva Premiership side.
Friday night’s one-point victory in Treviso confirmed two important facts regarding Mark Anscombe’s side’s make-up. They know how to win and, rather than throwing in the towel, they keep going when things are not working out.
On one of those signs supposed to make us smile or think, and sometimes both, appear the words, ‘A winner never quits, a quitter never wins’. Ulster have come to epitomise that.
To date they have not quit, to date they are undefeated. Coincidence? Don’t think so.
Shorn of so many of their top players — and, crucially, leaders — in Italy, Ulster really had to graft for those two results. Neither was pretty, both were fortuitous. Be that as it may, the league table shows eight points bagged and, as a result, a six point gap between Ulster and those closest to them, Scarlets after the Welsh side stole a win against Munster last night.
Rivals looking at the schedule Ulster faced during the autumn internationals may well have taken heart from it; two away matches so far from home but so close to one another. Difficult. One imagines they may have envisaged a point or two being dropped.
It hasn’t happened; instead Anscombe’s men have dug in, clung on and emerged intact. That will have demoralised any who had thought in terms of others doing them a favour by applying a brake to the Ulster locomotive.
Now it’s full-steam ahead to the Scarlets. They lost in Treviso, remember, so having just seen Ulster win there — luckily, it must be admitted — will have added insult to injury.
To win titles and cups, even the best teams require the occasional refereeing error, the odd bounce of the ball, a timely rub of the green in their favour. Ulster have enjoyed some of each of those in the absence of their front-liners. That, coupled with the determination and will to win they have shown, is why they remain unbeaten.
The word on the injury front is that captain Johann Muller (thumb) should be fit for Parc y Scarlets and Rory Best (neck) may well make it, too, giving both vital game-time ahead of the first of the European jousts on December 7. To that massively important pair add the back-on-board internationals.
Ulster defence coach Jonny Bell’s assessment after Friday night’s 16-15 victory was: “Sometimes you have to dig out a win and the boys dug in deep, stayed in there and gave themselves a chance of winning.
“For whatever reason our lineout didn’t function to the standard we expect it to and we didn’t control possession which just kept them in the game.”