Tyrone Howe: Ulster need to uncover their ruthless streak
The first phase of the Magners League is over, Ulster sit in an extremely healthy third position, and the players will be looking forward to the Heineken Cup in relatively confident anticipation.
On the attack: Ruan Pienaar may have only played one game for Ulster since his arrival from South Africa but in those 80 minutes showed the attacking qualities which they will need
Nervousness will also pervade because the players will know that their and the team’s performances will have to go up another notch if they are to get anything out of this year’s competition.
The squad is strong and the draw is as kind as Ulster’s players, coaching staff and the supporting public could have hoped.
An Italian side currently bottom of the Magners, an English side that is not Leicester or Northampton, and a French side that is not Toulouse, Clermont or Perpignan and can blow as cold as it blows hot.
Furthermore, the way the Heineken fixtures fall suits Ulster well and allows for a strong start which at the halfway point could put our boys in the driving seat and the other teams under serious pressure.
The pundits recognise Ulster’s strengths but generally dismiss the team’s ability to win on the road and also question the squad’s mental strength to come through the group.
They believe that in the same way a virtuous cycle of success breeds that winning mindset, so too does a decade of mediocrity.
I do not subscribe to any of these aforementioned views.
The challenge, for me, is whether Ulster can throw off the shackles of conservatism and play an enhanced style of winning rugby.
To date the rugby has been one-dimensional and largely based on huge physicality and strong ball-carrying.
It may be pragmatic and has got results, but ultimately it will not win the Magners League nor qualify for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
At the end of the pool stages, Ulster’s group could quite possibly see three teams with home wins and an away victory registered in Italy.
Bonus points will, therefore, be the major determinant. On the plus side Ulster have proven that they are a difficult team to beat, so they have the ability to garner losing bonus points.
However, the other key ingredient of the magic formula to Heineken success is tries and this is where the style of play has consistently come up short.
Ulster can come through this group, but the challenge for the coaches is whether they are prepared to empower the players to embrace an off-loading game that is inherently riskier but with far greater potential returns.
Can the players merge the strong-minded attacking attitude of Ruan Pienaar with an acknowledgement that they need to express more fully their rugby talents?
Clearly nothing is decided in round one, but I believe that Ulster have to start with a bonus point victory over Aironi.
The usual rhetoric will abound — yes, the Italians will be tough opposition and no, we should not underestimate them, but Aironi lie bottom of the Magners for a good reason.
They lack the quality to overcome decent sides.
Win the game first and then look for the bonus point might have been a mantra for last season’s final pool game against Bath, but this is a different scenario. It is irrelevant whether Aironi score 25 points as long as Ulster score 40.
If Munster were playing against Aironi in Thomond Park, they would hit the opposition with such a force in the opening quarter that there would be no self-doubt either on the pitch or on the terraces that Munster would come away with the bonus point.
It is that same bloody-minded ruthlessness that Ulster must invoke and infuse into their own game.
How do you do it? Well, you have to make a firm statement of intent early in the game.
The first couple of penalties that Ulster get in the Italian’s half should be kicked into the corner for an attacking lineout and Ulster must refuse to come away without a try. That will set the tone for the rest of the game.
The Heineken Cup has an edge to it, but on its own this is not sufficient for Ulster.
There is no magic wand — the magic lies in ambition and execution.