Ulster looking to slay Dragons
It is fair to say that like the summer now ended, bar occasional moments of unexpected sunshine, the past couple of seasons have been pretty dark and gloomy for followers of Ulster Rugby.
Ninth in the 10-club Magners League race in 2007/08, eighth in 2008/09 and once again unable to progress beyond the group stage of the Heineken European Cup, it has been a grim period.
Coach Matt Williams upped and left to be with his family. And with cash-strapped Ulster unable to attract big-name players, it was going to be a case of having to make do.
All this against a backdrop of Leinster and Munster thriving by virtue of their ability to generate cash whilst collecting silverware, thereby casting Ulster in the role of poor neighbours.
So how is it, on the eve of another Magners League campaign, that Ulster have arrived at a point where there is a certain amount of expectation hovering over Ravenhill?
It is not down simply to three pre-season wins; it is the manner in which those victories have been achieved that has bred fresh hope and belief.
Head coach Brian McLaughlin takes much of the credit, as do his assistants, Jeremy Davidson and Neil Doak and Operations Director, David Humphreys, who is a such huge influence for good, on and off the pitch.
As much as anything, this new-found optimism stems from having witnessed the rebirth of Ulster’s spirit and pride.
Undoubtedly those had been missing, a fact lamented by many as they made their exit from Ravenhill after watching another defeat and, far more worryingly, another lacklustre display.
And there is greater discipline and organisation, notably in defence.
They aren’t conceding and they are scoring.
Tomorrow afternoon in Newport, the Dragons will provide Ulster’s first competitive challenge of the new season.
The Welsh have beaten Ulster in each of their past three Magners League meetings. So why is there such a conviction that the guests have a very good chance of winning?
Well, although physically hard, the hosts are not a particularly good side.
And with Ulster, under Humphreys, McLaughlin, Davidson and Doak having rediscovered their work ethic and core values, they can match their hosts’ graft. They may also just have more craft.
One of those who has both grit and grace is Andrew Trimble. This week he said he hoped that if he was selected it would be in the centre rather than on the wing. He has got his wish.
Last season was a bad one for Trimble; guilt by association as a result of inclusion in a team not going well, a personal loss of form and, of course, injury which ultimately required knee surgery to rectify it cost him dearly.
Together those things robbed him of a place in Ireland’s Grand Slam heroics and any chance of a trip to South Africa with the Lions. As his star waned, simultaneously that of others — Ospreys’ ex-Ulster mate Tommy Bowe and Leinster’s Luke Fiztgerald are very good examples — waxed splendidly.
So, starting tomorrow, Trimble will be making up for lost time.
“I’m ready. I’m over my injury and in terms of my fitness I feel great,” he says.
For others, the time has come. Ian Humphreys is one; given the all-important number 10 jersey ahead of Paddy Wallace, he has to make this season count.
Half-back partner, Isaac Boss, is another. With Peter Stringer’s run as Ireland’s first-choice scrum half at an end, there is a vacancy there. How deep is his desire to fill it?
Chris Henry, who will captain Ulster in the absence of the unfortunate Rory Best, had a great summer as a Churchill Cup winner. Now he has a chance to build on those excellent foundations.
In recent seasons, Ulster’s away form has left much to be desired.
They last won at Rodney Parade in 2006/07 and on the most recent occasion on which they played there they went down 26-16.
Ulster have also lost their last 11 matches against Welsh regions in the league.
But in view of the overall improvements McLaughlin et al have wrought, I fancy them.
NEWPORT DRAGONS: J Tovey; A Brew, T Riley, A Smith, R Fussell; J Arlidge, W Evans; A McKenzie, T Willis (captain), N Hall; A Jones, L Charteris; D Lydiate, G Thomas, J Bearman.
Replacements: H Gustafson, S Jones, G Robinson, R Sidoli, G Webb, M Thomas, A Walker.
ULSTER: B Cunningham; T Nagusa, A Trimble, I Whitten, S Danielli; I Humphreys, I Boss; B Young, A Kyriacou, B Botha; D Tuohy, R Caldwell; C Henry (captain), W Faloon, R Diack.
Replacements: N Brady, D Fitzpatrick, E O’Donoghue, T Anderson, P Marshall, P Wallace, D Cave.