Ulster aces Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris are tipped to travel to Australia next summer with the British and Irish Lions.
Bowe starred for the Lions in South Africa in 2009, appearing in all three tests, but after a promising start, Ferris’s tour was cut short by injury and Best missed out altogether, despite having been strongly fancied for a call-up.
The fact that all three are expected to be included in 2013 is proof of the strength of the squad Ulster — who unveiled BT and Kingspan as new co-sponsors — are building, but the players themselves know that if that is to happen, they will be required to shine for their province and Ireland in the coming season.
And there is the additional motivation of greater competition for places in Mark Anscombe’s (pictured) Ulster team.
Ferris summed it up by saying: “Mark doesn’t care if you’re a Lion or an Academy player; if you play well and put your hand up for selection, he’s going to pick you.
“It’s all about enthusiasm in training and obviously training really well. He laid down a marker and said guys will get an opportunity to play if they’re training well — and make sure you’re ready because I’ll bloody well pick you.
“So all the guys are tuned in. Last year we played the same team week-in, week-out and then there was the odd game — I think it was Leinster away and Munster away — when there were 20 changes to the squad.
“But I think Mark wants to target every game to win. If there’s going to be changes it’s going to be one or two here and there. That’s the way he works; he wants to win every game.”
Bowe’s return to Ravenhill following his highly successful four-year stint with Ospreys has given rise to fresh optimism. He has revealed the envy he felt when Ulster went all the way to last season’s Heineken Cup final.
The mercurial Monaghan man admitted: “It was almost hard for me to watch them getting to play in last season’s Heineken Cup semi-final and final. I was just so jealous, though obviously delighted to see them there.
“I was disappointed, obviously, with the result in the final, but I think now that Ulster are looking at their consistency and trying to trying to bring more of that into their game.
“They’ve been pulling out massive performances in Europe and then maybe slipping off the following week (in the PRO12).
“If we can get that consistency, hopefully that will get us through to the knock-out stages of the Rabo and the Heineken.”
Best pointed to Ulster’s emergence as something which will help Ireland.
“To have had two teams in the Heineken Cup final was massive for Irish rugby and hopefully now in the coming years that can now be transferred onto the national team,” he said.
And he cited Ulster’s growing representation at international level, with emerging players like Chris Henry, Dan Tuohy, Declan Fitzpatrick and Paul Marshall having been in New Zealand with Ireland in June.