All of what Brian McLaughlin has worked towards will go on very public display this weekend.
The hours spent at Newforge, Barnett Demesne, Bayonne in southern France, Portstewart Strand plus home dates against Newcastle Falcons and Viadana and last Friday’s Midlands outing against Worcester Warriors — all of this has been about preparing his squad for the competitive arena which they enter tomorrow.
By the time they do so they will know how the others have fared, Newport Gwent Dragons versus Ulster being the last of the opening weekend’s five Magners League fixtures.
Prior to announcing the starting side for his first competitive fixture in charge, he praised his squad and expressed his satisfaction in what his players have shown since he took over at the end of June.
“We’re very, very pleased. We’ve now given everybody a go and we’re in a position of strength from a squad point of view,” he said. “We know there are people who have put their hand up and shown that they are capable of stepping up.”
Ulster’s defensive showings — two tries and a mere 15 points conceded in three friendlies, two of those against Guinness Premiership opposition — have been impressive. But on the eve of the competitive action the coach said: “While we’re very happy with the way the defence is progressing there is still work to be done there.
“To be fair to the boys they are putting the effort in and any improvements we’ve made have come as a result of that.”
The fact that the first two fixtures of the series are away – after Newport, Ulster face Ospreys in Swansea next Saturday – does not bother him.
“The positive thing is Worcester which has given us the confidence to go away and play. If you go to the Dragons and Ospreys with a nice win against Worcester under your belt, that’s a nice way to be travelling,” he said. “We’re not kidding ourselves; we have work to do and we have a long way to go. But we are making progress.
“Worcester had more or less their full-strength side out, with three internationals in their back three alone, Chris Latham, Miles Benjamin and Marcel Garvey there. So they were very, very strong and having been able to deal with that has given us confidence.
“We’re going to the Dragons to do our best, obviously, and we’ll be giving everything to try and come home with a win.”
The bookmakers have installed Ulster as 40/1 shots to win the Magners League, with only two clubs reckoned to be less likely. Significantly, the first of that unfortunate pair are Dragons, priced at 80/1, with Connacht a derisory 500/1.
McLaughlin won’t worry about bookies’ figures. Real points scored in actual matches are a different thing, though.