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New season, new faces but the ambitions remain the same

By Jonathon Bradley

While this tumultuous summer will no doubt live long in the memory of Ulster rugby fans, for Robbie Diack it will be remembered for his international debut.

The Johannesburg-born flanker – eligible for Ireland since July 2011 – had been involved in squads as far back as March 2013 but only made his Ireland debut against Argentina this June.

Reflecting on the tour, he said: "I loved the experience and I loved the occasion, and to get my first cap was a huge honour.

"I always said that I wanted that first cap and, now that I've got it, I'm just keen and eager to get some more under my belt."

Diack played all 80 minutes of the 29-17 Test win but the same day it was announced director of rugby David Humphreys would be leaving Ulster to join Gloucester.

That shock preceded Mark Anscombe's removal as head coach and his replacement, on an interim basis, by Les Kiss, meant that Diack returned home to a province that seemed in disarray.

However, nothing could be further from the truth according to the 28-year-old and ahead of tomorrow's PRO12 opener against Scarlets, he is expecting a successful campaign.

"Everyone from the outside may think that Ulster is in a bit of turmoil but the players are oblivious to that, and we just look at what we have to do and what happens on the training field," said the one-time Stormer.

"The management have been fantastic and the backroom staff have been super in making sure that when we did arrive for pre-season, we knew who the coach and the coaching staff were.

"Everything has been perfect. Les is a great coach. He's proven himself with the Irish team and the way they defend. The players have enjoyed him and have a lot of respect for him, and everyone has bought into the new system."

And despite some high-profile departures from the playing squad, Diack is keen to remind sceptics of the considerable talent that will be wearing Ulster white at Parc y Scarlets tomorrow.

"Everyone has spoken about Tom Court, John Afoa and Johann Muller leaving and is it going to leave a gaping hole in Ulster rugby but, to be honest, it hasn't.

"There are players who have come in to replace them and they also have great experience and great leadership capabilities.

"You look around at the players at Ulster like Rory Best and Tommy Bowe who've played at the highest level and we just have to utilise those players and take it into these big games."

Scarlets themselves are adjusting to working under a new coach, Wayne Pivac.

"We know going to the Scarlets is going to be a tough game. They beat us last year and we just have to go there and be at our best. They've had a good pre-season, they got a good win against Gloucester last week. They've got a big pack and they've recruited really well," said Diack.

Ulster's first game of last season was a defeat in Wales, a 15-8 loss to the Dragons, and they lost at the Scarlets last November, but Diack believes victory could be the first step on a journey to end a trophy drought stretching back to 2006.

"We want to win silverware. We've come so close and we've learned from it and we've had to learn from it the last three years. It hurts and it's time to change."

Change hasn't been in short supply this summer and the first chance to show that it has been for the better arrives tomorrow.

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