Niall Crozier: Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin can start looking to the future
Having power-hosed the cobwebs of a fast-decaying season away on Sunday afternoon at Murrayfield, Ulster’s self-belief has soared.
Not having won an away match in the Magners League since September 25 when they beat Connacht 30-6, finally they came good at the weekend by delivering their third try-scoring bonus performance of 2009/10 in the 37-25 victory over Edinburgh.
While one swallow doesn’t make a summer, it does suggest an improving climate.
Let’s not get carried away, however. Sunday is but one rung in the ladder and Ulster devotees will recall that their side won the penultimate Magners League fixture of 2008/09, too.
In fact, this time last year Ulster were better off than now, having won seven matches and banked 36 points. Currently, with one match to go, they have won six and registered 31 points. At best they can equal last season’s Magners League tally and to do that they must beat Connacht and score four tries en route.
These roller-coaster rides with many more troughs than peaks must end.
Magners League finishing positions in the past five seasons — eighth, first, fifth, ninth, eighth — and at best eighth again this year, really do not offer evidence of development.
Ulster’s priority in 2010/11 must be to ensure that they are not going into their second-last fixture in danger of being overhauled by Connacht in the scrap for the third Irish berth on the Heineken Cup ferry.
Rather than producing occasional high-quality fare, such as against Stade Francais, Bath and Edinburgh in this season’s Heineken Cup, they must strive for a good staple diet. Regular helpings of mince rather than occasional fillet steak meals to supplement bread and water rations is a better deal. Consistency is everything.
So while I am loath to attach too much significance to Ulster’s weekend win, their first in the Magners League since January 2, it did provide some cause for optimism.
Required to deliver under huge pressure, they did so. Sunday saw Ulster’s biggest ‘points for’ haul since the first weekend in October when they scored 45 against Scarlets at Ravenhill.
It was their first Magners League win over Scottish opponents in four attempts this season, having previously lost to Edinburgh in Belfast and to Glasgow, home and away.
After drawing with Dragons on February 19, Brian McLaughlin’s menwent into a nosedive which saw them lose to Scarlets, twice to Cardiff, Ospreys and Glasgow.
As a result of a form guide showing a draw followed by five successive defeats they travelled to Murrayfield knowing that in the event of them returning empty-handed that would extend their run to an unprecedented seven matches without a win.
No-one in the Ulster camp wanted to be part of that and it showed. Called upon to stand up for themselves, the Ulstermen did.
Nobody epitomised the will to win more than Rory Best. Speaking prior to the match he said Heineken Cup inclusion was everything.
That attitude showed in his game. Captaining the side for the first time in a season which, in his case, did not kick off until the end of January, the Irish hooker led from the front. Other big name players stood up and delivered, too, with BJ Botha excelling alongside his skipper.
Tom Court, Best and Botha is quite a front row and Ulster must send out a clear signal of intent by killing off any suggestion that the Springboks tight head may be moving on.
Stephen Ferris is a class act who grew into the match after what, by his standards, was a slow start.
Andrew Trimble’s defence and ball-carrying were magnificent while fellow-wing Simon Danielli’s all-round game was equally impressive.
Alongside those proven warriors some of the young braves also showed their willingness — and ability — to battle.
Full-back Jamie Smith, 21, and open side Willie Faloon, 23, again underlined their potential, while scrum-half Paul Marshall, 24, showed that he can be relied upon to do a decent job.
Ulster, however, have made no secret of their pursuit of “an international-class scrum-half”.
Indeed Operations Director David Humphreys said last week that they expect to complete just such a signing in the near future.
Already in the bag are South African lock Johann Muller (left) and former All Blacks No 8 Xavier Rush (below) who, in addition to their undoubted abilty, will bring vast experience to the Ulster pack, training ground and dressing room.
The prospect of a young player like Faloon being fast-tracked as a result of playing alongside Ferris and Rush is hugely exciting.
But with consistency of performance being everything, what Ulster need most is a play-making outside-half capable of dictating the game, week-in, week-out.
And, if they are really serious about progressing, a creative midfielder, too.
‘Make do’ recruitments will not do if Ulster are to avoid another season of struggling.