Tyrone Howe: Overseas stars hold the key
One of the outstanding features of last season for Ulster Rugby supporters was that they could settle down to watch the Six Nations with the tantalising prospect of proper meaningful rugby still to come.
A European quarter final to look forward to and highly competitive in the domestic competition effectively meant a full season of serious rugby. From a sporting point of view, it is far more satisfying for players, and from a commercial point of view it makes it a lot easier to sell season tickets — a classic case of value for money.
For too long, by the time the Six Nations had started, Ulster players and supporters alike knew exactly how the rest of the season was likely to play out — an exit from Europe and mid-table in the domestic league with little or no hope of making it near the top.
I remember it all too well, as it has been a consistent feature of the last decade. When you got to that point, no matter how high your own level of self-motivation, it was always hugely frustrating that the subsequent effort and sweat seemed to count for little.
It felt like you were endlessly floating around in the league, stuck in rugby limbo land.
The feeling worsened as the season wore on and, while it might be hard to justify, towards the end it felt as though we were simply seeing out fixtures.
Last season there was so much extra buzz with the prospect of a Heineken Cup quarter-final and realistic chance of a high-flying position in the Magners League.
It set a new level of expectation, and our hopes are for no less this time around.
Of course, the rugby season has been helped structurally by additional innovations, such as including Heineken Cup teams in the quarter final stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup and a top four finish leading to play-offs — as a result there has been a more sustained level of interest and motivation for the majority of domestic teams.
Against this backdrop, then, what are Ulster’s chances? Well, as we enter 2012, it is once again a situation where January will largely dictate the rest of the season.
First of all, we should give credit for a good December. Two out of three victories and nine points in the Pro12, and a full complement of 10 points in the Heineken Cup means that Ulster is still alive domestically and very much in the running in Europe.
The new European format means that, should Ulster beat the Leicester Tigers on Friday week, European rugby is secured after the Six Nations — believe it will ultimately be Heineken in flavour, but the insurance policy is Amlin.
In the Pro12, Ulster need to get a string of victories together, and one hopes that the four tries scored against Munster will give the confidence and impetus to move on from this.
Absolutely vital is the game against Edinburgh this weekend; while Ulster may still only lie seven points away from 4th position with ten games left, should the team lose, it will be an uphill battle from then on to secure a playoff spot.
There are several reasons for this. Similar to the Rugby World Cup period, the Six Nations leads to general disruption: many players have one eye or more on the Irish squad, there are changes to team selection and, at times, longer periods between matches.
Of course, most teams have to deal with these variables.
However, even without this disruption, Ulster has shown inconsistency in performance through the season thus far.
Therefore, I fear that they will be unlikely to ride out the storm without feeling a certain element of pain over the next few months.
The level of pain may depend on the role of the senior foreign contingent.
Formerly, with players involved with Ireland, leadership within the wider squad diminished.
Through their ability and personal qualities, in Muller, Pienaar and Afoa, the personnel now exists to hold the squad together and maintain high standards and focus.
The first half of the season provided plenty of highs and lows and there is every reason to expect more of the same in the coming months.