ulster ready to roar against Tigers
With back-to-back Heineken Cup games next on their schedule, Ulster have run into form at just the right moment, with Friday night's 18-12 victory over the Ospreys underlining that fact.
Beaten 15-8 by the Dragons in Newport four weeks earlier when the opening night of the 2013-14 season proved to be one on which nothing went right, Ulster then lost again seven days later when they hosted Glasgow in their second outing of the campaign.
True, they were significantly better than had been the case at Rodney Parade and really ought to have been 20 points clear of Glasgow given the chances they had created. Nevertheless that too ended in a defeat with Ulster pipped at the post when the Scots scored and converted a last-play try to steal a 13-12 win.
Played two, lost two was not the start expected of the side which won the previous season's PRO12 race only then to lose the play-off final to Leinster in Dublin.
To their credit, Ulster's response to those defeats was to pick themselves up and dust themselves down before serving up a fully-merited 18-7 win over Connacht in Galway.
With a win on the board at the third time of asking, finally Ulster were motoring. And following that Sportsground win they stepped on the gas afresh with a five-try rout of Treviso who left Ravenhill a well-beaten side having gone down 32-13.
But Friday night's pairing with the Ospreys at Swansea's Liberty Stadium was by far the biggest challenge Ulster had faced and the fact that they emerged triumphant from it – after trailing 12-0 – has eradicated any doubts about them being back on track.
Make no mistake; in view of the importance of the two forthcoming European fixtures – home to Leicester Tigers this Friday, then away to Montpellier – this was a massive result.
Prior to Ulster's visit, Ospreys were one of only two unbeaten sides in this term's PRO12. They had not lost in Swansea since mid-September 2012, racking up 10 straight home wins in the interim. And Friday night's line-up included five Lions in their pack.
To have seen off that class of opponents who had enjoyed a 12-point lead with little over half-an-hour to go reveals a great deal about this Ulster side's inner strength and resilience. No-one epitomises that better than Rory Best.
After 80 bruising minutes, the hooker summed it up perfectly when he said: "To come away to a place like this – a very hard place to come and win – and to go 12-0 down, with a penalty on the half-time blow and then two more within about five or 10 minutes of the second half ... to come back and win against a quality side like the Ospreys, you've got to have a lot of character and you've got to have a lot of belief in your own ability. We showed that."
Days before this test of strength he had publicly endorsed out-half Paddy Jackson and urged supporters to give the young apprentice time in which to learn his trade. Given the events of Friday night when Jackson posted a perfect six out of six penalties en route to all 18 of Ulster's points in a man of the match performance, the hooker was delighted to highlight the number 10's contribution.
There was a real 'told you so' edge to Best as he said: "He kicked absolutely everything. After the hard work he has put in all summer, it's good to see it paying off in a big game for him."
Coach Mark Anscombe agreed, saying: "We didn't have one shot at goal in the first half and then we had six in the second. Paddy's been working hard on his game and he kicked beautifully."
Asked about the frantic closing seconds when Ulster found themselves having to defend against a five-metres scrum knowing that a converted try would give the Ospreys a final-play victory, Best admitted it had been a matter of trying to get possession of the ball in order to hoof it into touch to end the game.
"We knew, on the line with the last play, they were going to come at us. Adam Jones came back on, which didn't help things from our point of view, but again we dug in.
"That's the character we're building here, that's what we have – character and a lot of belief," Best said.
With the English champions coming to Ravenhill on Friday night, Anscombe knows there must be more than confidence and belief.
He looked down the track at the thundering red, green and white locomotive approaching and warned: "We have to be hungry, smart and energetic if we're to get a result."