What now for Ulster?
Following Ulster’s unfortunate exit from the European stage the focus now shifts to the international scene.
Ulster’s seniors don’t play again until February 19, a break of three and a half weeks during which operations director David Humphreys, coach Brian McLaughlin and his able lieutenants Neil Doak and Jeremy Davidson, will have ample time to review events to date and plan for what lies ahead.
As they ruminate on what has happened since they took charge they can reflect on considerable progress.
Ulster were within touching distance of a place in the last eight of the Heineken Cup. Victories in four of their six Pool 4 matches, including Saturday’s long-awaited on-the-road success in Bath, confirm a significant improvement and a team moving in the right direction.
That fact will not be lost on players who, in the near future, may find themselves weighing up the wisdom of a move to or away from Ulster. While the prospect of joining a club on the way up is attractive, a decision to go elsewhere would not come easily.
Twelve months ago Ulster finished third of four in the group stage of Heineken Cup having won two and drawn one of their six fixtures, picking up a losers’ bonus. That gave them 11 points, 11 shy of Pool 4 winners, Harlequins.
Ulster scored 13 tries and conceded an identical number. Only bottom of the pile Scarlets leaked more.
Matt Williams’ Ulster scored 113 points and conceded 134.
In the series just ended, Ulster finished second having won four out of six, including last weekend’s memorable away day triumph.
They amassed 17 Pool 4 points, one short of group winners, Stade Francais.
They scored 11 tries. And while that is two fewer than last year, it is exactly the same number as that recorded by the winners of what was a very tight group.
In addition, Ulster conceded only six tries, the best defensive display in Pool 4 with Stade, Edinburgh and Bath having leaked seven, 10 and eight respectively.
Last year Ulster conceded 134 points in their six matches. Their ‘against’ tally in 2009/10 shows 40 fewer than in 2008/09.
Indeed, Ulster’s vital statistics this year were better than those of group winners, Stade. The French scored 124 points and conceded 95. Ulster scored 127 and conceded 94.
One cannot but sympathise with McLaughlin who lost out not only on a Heineken Cup quarter-final place but on inclusion in the lesser Amlin Cup competition, too, adding massive insult to injury.
It is cruel in the extreme that with two of Heineken Cup group
stage runners-up having made the cut in the premier tournament and three of the remaining four qualifying for inclusion in the Amlin Cup, Ulster alone were left empty-handed.
Now, in the coach’s words, they must “get stuck in again in the Magners League and make sure things there go right for us”.
Fourth spot and a place in the play-offs is the goal. Currently they are three points behind fourth-placed Leinster, who have a game in hand.
With eight matches remaining — four at home, four away — and no counter-attractions at this stage, they can and must regroup for the challenge ahead.
They will do so in the knowledge that they are a much better team than was the case a year ago when they finished eighth having won seven matches.
To date this term they have won five. All but three of their remaining eight fixtures are against sides below them in the table.
To paraphrase their coach, they can make sure things go right on this front.