Tyrone Howe: A decade on, and Ulster are better equipped than ever
While coach Mark Anscombe will have certain issues with performance and highlight key areas for improvement, it is hard to refute the fact that it has been the perfect start for Ulster.
Twelve wins out of twelve is a remarkable achievement —the ten straight RaboDirect victories represent the best start to a PRO12 season by any club since the competition went home and away in 2003/04.
While the international contingent have been away collecting further experience and some senior players have been recuperating from injury, the wider squad has done what has been asked of it — kept the winning streak going and contributing to the positive atmosphere and confidence.
It is 10 years since I took part in an Ulster visit to Franklin Gardens. We lost 32-9 and it comes as great consolation that I expect the result to be considerably different a decade on.
It is amazing when you consider what some of those players are doing now. Of the starting XV that day, Jonathan Bell and Neil Doak are now part of the Ulster coaching team, David Humphreys is Director of Rugby, while Bryn Cunningham, Matt Sexton, Robbie Kempson (who, quelle surprise, spent 10 minutes in the sin bin), Mark Blair and Gary Longwell are all directly or indirectly involved with professional rugby set-ups. Maybe most notable is the replacement hooker, Paul Shields who has acted as team manager for the Northampton Saints for the last few seasons and will give a unique insight into all things Ulster.
As almost every player returns for selection, just imagine the atmosphere in the squad. It will be buzzing: unbeaten, competition for places, the gang back together again assembling for the biggest game of the season. And have no doubts, Friday’s match will be the biggest test so far.
It was only a matter of time before a really big examination of Ulster’s credentials came along. To the players’ credit, they have hauled themselves into a position where, without playing close to their potential, they still have the ability to beat most sides. But Friday night is different in that the players will have to play with an intensity and application which has not been either fully required or delivered in the last few weeks.
It is time for a proper test and the Saints represent a true barometer of how far the Ulster side has come since their narrow defeat to Jim Mallinder’s men in the 2011-12 quarter-final. While history ultimately counts for nothing, Ulster have undoubtedly made greater strides since then compared to their opponents: the playing personnel is stronger, experience is deeper, the style of rugby is more multi-layered, sterling defence and gamebreakers in key positions, and the consistency is at a higher level than ever before.
Nevertheless, the challenge is huge particularly when you consider 5 key factors in Saints’ favour: the return of Hartley, Lawes, Foden, Wood and Pisi. A third of Mallinder’s starting XV are quality internationals, back to fitness and raring to go.
Forget the unconvincing wins over London Welsh and Sale Sharks, this is the strongest side that the Saints have been able to put out for a number of months and the timing could not be better for their coach.
Ulster’s own selection may be far more difficult. The performances in recent weeks of players like Marshall, Black, Wilson and, of course, Gilroy have made it so. However, in an important away fixture, coaches generally go for experience and I can imagine Mark Anscombe reverting back to the same men who delivered for him before the autumn internationals, with the inclusion of Nick Williams and Andrew Trimble. With the challenge of a short five day turnaround one expects that the bench will be used, so what a bonus to have such quality to call upon. Where Ulster have the real edge is in the halfback partnership who have far greater ability to control and direct.
If Ulster’s pack can provide the ‘go forward’, then Pienaar and Jackson could unleash some serious attack.
At the moment winning on the road seems commonplace but it has been a fairly recent phenomenon for Ulster in the Heineken Cup, especially in England. I expect another epic European encounter, but Ulster have too much individual and collective class and momentum to be denied.