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Ulster must start punching weight as excuses won't wash

 

Comment: Jonathan Bradley

It was Mike Tyson, the youngest ever heavyweight champ and self-proclaimed baddest man on the planet, who once said "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth".

And while, given his trade, Iron Mike was no doubt being literal, it's not a bad summation of what we know about Ulster going into their 2017/18 opener.

The province certainly have a new plan, indeed quite a few of them it seems, but after looking plenty punch drunk at various points in pre-season, tonight they face the first real attempt to hit them a smack in the kisser as Guinness PRO14 new boys the Cheetahs come to the Kingspan Stadium.

There were times last year when the mood around the famous old stadium, which has gained a lot but lost a little in its shiny new incarnation, seemed as low as it's been since the last days of Mark McCall - a split that at least worked out well for one of the parties - but multiple players have spoken of an increased buzz in training and a better feel among the camp ahead of the new season.

It hasn't exactly transferred to the fan base, whose social media outpourings after both Wasps and Northampton had their way with Les Kiss's men were filled with declarations that the season was over before it began and the odd bawling emoji.

If it's wrong to cry over spilled milk, then we certainly shouldn't shed a tear over the results of friendlies, but this is team that are working with minimal benefit of the doubt given the year-on-year regression since making the Heineken Cup final in 2012.

Last season's descent towards mediocrity - Ulster finished bottom of a European pool that did, admittedly, feature both the French and English champions, while missing out on what was then the PRO12 play-offs - was a fifth straight season, and under a third different coach, that the return come May was less than 12 months prior.

That run will need to end if a clamour for heads to roll isn't to become deafening by the spring of 2018.

New Edinburgh coach Richard Cockerill asked at last week's league launch in Dublin, "How did Pat Lam get all those misfits at Connacht together to win the league?"

And while the former Leicester supremo was referring to the spirit he needs to create in the Scottish capital, it's a question that remains bad news for any coach preaching patience in a hunt for silverware.

If the now Bristol coach could take the Galway outfit from perennial also-rans to league champions in just three years, how do we sit here on the eve of a new season with Ulster having failed to deliver a single piece of silverware since 2006?

This will be Les Kiss's second full season at Kingspan - he arrived in November of 2015 after finishing his Ireland duties at the end of the last World Cup - and the Australian would readily admit that it is an absolute necessity the province start to see an upturn in fortunes this season.

Ulster fans have already spent too long waiting in recent years.

Waiting for their young stars to mature, waiting for Kiss to arrive, waiting for Charles Piutau to make his debut, waiting for Marcell Coetzee to be fit, it has gone on.

But now for Kiss, and his new coaching team underneath him, with Ruan Pienaar already departed, Charles Piutau 10 months from joining him, and a number of key home-grown figures another year further along on the wrong side of 30, if there is no improvement over the next 12 months, there's no reason to believe there would be in the 12 months after that.

This, to be frank, is the season when the stalling for time must stop.

That is not to say there should be a mob marching on BT6 if the side fail to be the ones celebrating in the Aviva Stadium come May 26.

But the need to restore a little faith by moving in the right direction is evident.

Andrew Trimble, last season's captain, has already admitted that the squad are as sick of spouting the usual clichés about targeting silverware as the public are hearing them, and there has been a noticeable muting of expectations in the side's projections of themselves during this summer.

By and large, fans seem to be in a similar boat, not entering the campaign with a win or bust mentality but demanding at least, and justifiably so, to see the early green shoots of a successful team.

With so much change, in both personnel and in the coaching box, rhythm in these early weeks may be hard to come by, but the side are aided by a fixture list that has handed them four of their first six games at home, with the pair of away trips coming against Italian opposition.

By season's end though, consistency in their structures, selections and most crucially their performances are an absolute must.

Going from last year's pre-Christmas toppling of Clermont at Kingspan, to the wheels, and indeed the bumper, the bonnet and a door or two, falling off the season by the middle of January was a large part of why the entire 2016/17 campaign felt like such a frustration.

Few teams in the league can range from the ridiculous to the sublime with such readiness, but the side would be better off finding some middle ground week to week.

Elsewhere, when it comes to signs that all may soon start trending northwards once again, big seasons from a handful of key players would help immensely.

Few teams in world rugby could see Pienaar walk out the door without suffering a loss, and certainly none at Ulster's level, but new scrum-half John Cooney is one man who the province will hope to see something from early on.

There remains a belief that the side can go as far as Coetzee's surgically repaired knees can carry them, and a full season out of the physical flanker would be a huge boost, while Iain Henderson bringing his Lions form back to Belfast would be another indicator that things are back on the right track.

Pressure? Certainly, and starting at the very top too, but for the first time in years, taking just a step or two in the right direction would be considered a start.

And where better to begin than against the Cheetahs in front of a big crowd in an historic clash at the Kingspan tonight.

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