Tyrone Howe: Ulster have to deliver as stars return to battle
While the RWC is over in terms of actual action, the tail of this particular dog is long and wags ferociously in both positive and negative ways for Northern Hemisphere rugby.
In England, Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints have found life exceptionally difficult without their international players. The season has effectively only just kicked off for them as they attempt to claw their way back up the Premiership table.
Much closer to home, Ulster have been finding out that the implications and consequences of the RWC can have extremely mixed results.
Over the last two months, Ulster’s extended squad has been sorely tested. There is always optimism and energy at the start of the season.
Matching this enthusiasm with a favourable run of fixtures — Glasgow at home, Aironi and then Cardiff at home — ensured that the season would get off to a flyer and inevitably, raise expectations.
The subsequent more dangerous games away to the Ospreys and Dragons have always been tough fixtures, in which Ulster have traditionally struggled.
Amidst the highs and lows was the game against Treviso, which most reflected the loss of confidence.
It wasn’t so much the defeat itself, but the manner of the performance or lack of performance. Thus, the importance of this weekend’s interprovincial against Connacht cannot be understated, particularly as the Heineken Cup is just around the corner.
The Treviso players are no slouches, as their 50 point demolition of the Dragons last weekend proved.
Still, after last season, we expect much better and ninth position in the Pro12 is not where Brian McLaughlin and his coaching team would have wanted to be at this stage of the season. The frustration cannot be helped by the fact that both Munster and Leinster are sitting pretty in second and third position respectively.
With the return of the majority of Ulster’s international players we believed that it would be okay, the cavalry had arrived. Yet, it is not as straightforward as that.
The likes of Chris Ashton and Toby Flood can hit the ground running because they have been making regular appearances in the last two months. It is not as easy for Ulster’s returnees — most of Ulster’s international contingent have played precious little actual rugby.
Therefore, it was absolutely the right thing to have Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, Tom Court, Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble play last weekend, as they desperately need match practice.
They will be the better for it against Connacht, while there should be no such problem with Stephen Ferris and Rory Best.
Have we reason to be worried? Looking at the Heineken Cup draw, arguably we have every reason.
Yet, there is hope on the horizon. Ulster only need to look at Leinster last season for a direct comparison and example of what is achievable.
Leinster had experienced a shocking start to the league both in terms of results and more worrying, performances. Coach Joe Schmidt was unable to select a full choice XV until the final match before his Heineken Cup campaign began. As it is this weekend, that was an interprovincial fixture against Munster.
Interpros are unique occasions. Somehow it seems to bring out the best in you — pride and bragging rights are on the line. It proved to be the catalyst for Leinster and against the odds, they pulled together, produced a superb performance and went on the following week to beat Racing Metro.
Arguably, Leinster’s Heineken group really was the ‘Group of Death,’ but their campaign finished months later at the Millennium Stadium with the most incredible second-half performance to overcome Ulster’s conquerors, Northampton Saints.
While we can’t look too far ahead, it is imperative that Ulster produce a carbon-copy of Leinster’s effort a year ago.
Confidence is a capricious animal. It may have the ability to evaporate, but equally it can return very quickly if the right conditions are created.
While the ‘stars’ may not have much rugby under their belts, their influence and leadership is crucial this weekend.
The big names need to drive on those less experienced players who have been holding the fort in their absence.
Every now and again you reach a point where a performance and victory are vital. Connacht on Saturday is exactly that point.