Ulster Rugby: Write us off at your peril
Having watched a seriously depleted Ulster in recent action against each of the other three Irish provinces, it strikes me that those of us in the most northerly part of this island have cause for rugby-related optimism right now.
Consider: a week after the huge disappointment of crashing out of the Heineken Cup, Ulster hosted Connacht in the PRO12.
Mark Anscombe's side won that by a resounding 58-12 margin – on a night when they were minus injured front-liners Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best, John Afoa, Dan Tuohy and Roger Wilson, plus being without Jared Payne.
He was suspended in the wake of his contentious fifth minute dismissal six days earlier against Saracens, who were restricted to a slender 17-15 winning margin.
Against Leinster on May 2, once again Ulster found themselves reduced to 14 early on, Tom Court having been red-carded with 65 minutes remaining.
As had been the case against Saracens, they coped admirably with that handicap, so much so that the defending PRO12 champions were relieved to have scraped a two-point win from a game which finished 22-20. That night, too, Ulster were without Pienaar, Best and Afoa.
Eight days later they lined out against Munster. With a PRO12 play-off place assured, Anscombe chose to rest most of his star turns.
Against all the odds, Ulster won 19-17 despite the fact that the Munster line-up included such first-choice players as Dave Kilcoyne, Damien Varley, Paul O'Connell, James Coughlan, Felix Jones, Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo and Ian Keatley.
Given that Ulster's previous three Thomond Park PRO12 outings had seen them trounced 35-10 (January 2011), 36-8 (May 2012) and 24-10 (December 2012), Saturday night's victory was indeed noteworthy.
Now it remains to be seen how they fare on Saturday night at the RDS where they face Leinster in the second of this weekend's play-off semi-finals – Glasgow Warriors v Munster on Friday is the other – but certainly there is no reason for them to travel to Dublin weighed down by any sense of inferiority.
True, this is a venue where, traditionally, they have struggled. That, however, owes nothing to any hoodoo.
The simple truth is that when Ulster failed to win in Dublin from 1999 through to 2013, it was because they were repeatedly outplayed by superior opponents.
This time, however, they know they are capable of beating Leinster, having done so last season in the course of a home and away double whammy in the PRO12's regular season.
And but for the fact that they froze in the opening seven minutes of the 2013 play-off final, thereby gifting their hosts a 10-point lead, they might very well have made it a hat-trick. As it was, they outscored Leinster 18-14 in the course of the 72 minutes which followed.
Examination of the respective squads confirms the number and calibre of young players Ulster have brought through. In contrast, look at the age of Leinster's big guns – Leo Cullen is 36 and Brian O'Driscoll is 35.
Both are retiring – on Saturday if Ulster have their way.
O'Driscoll's midfield partner Gordon D'Arcy is 34, as are scrum-half Isaac Boss and tight-head Mike Ross. Mike McCarthy is 32. Now that's a lot of top-notch guys with big miles on the clock, so the day when they call it quits is fast approaching.
There's no shortage of Boys of the Old Brigade over in Munster, either. Their big forwards include 35-year-old Donncha O'Callaghan, a couple of 34-year-olds in Paul O'Connell and BJ Botha, plus James Coughlan, who is 33.
So Leinster and Munster are going to have to replace a number of players who have been central to their success.
And it is here that Ulster may just have stolen a march by virtue of having upgraded youngsters like Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy who are 23, Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson who are 22 and Stuart Olding who is 21. All are full internationals.
And to their ranks can be added fast-emerging performers like Rob Herring and Ricky Andrew – both 24 – Andrew Warwick and Michael Heaney who are 23 and Rory Scholes who is 21.
In being bold enough to blood their young, Ulster have enabled them to gain experience at an early age. Some day soon – maybe very, very soon – those crows will start coming home to roost.
- Lombardi was wrong... nice guys don't always finish in last place
- Best and Pienaar back for Dublin crunch
- D-day for ulster