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No cups, but Ulster are on right track

After 30 hard-fought fixtures, Ulster’s 2010/11 campaign is over.

Time to take stock of the past 10 months and assess all of what has happened since Brian McLaughlin’s side kicked off by beating the defending champions, Ospreys, in the first match of the Magners League season.

With Ospreys having won 38-27 at Ravenhill on April 13, Ulster’s 27-26 victory on September 3 set the tone for what was to follow. It was the first time in three years that they had beaten the star-studded Swansea-based club and it proved to be the first in a series thereof.

In 2009/10 McLaughlin had created a precedent when he masterminded Ulster’s first-ever triumph in a competitive match on English soil, his side having beaten Bath 28-10 in their Heineken Cup date at The Rec.

In 2010/11 his side returned to the same venue and won 26-22.

McLaughlin steered Ulster into the last eight of European club rugby’s most prestigious tournament. It was the first time since 1999 that Ulster had reached that stage.

A place in the quarter-finals had been their goal and they achieved it. Mark that down as success.

Ulster’s pre-season Magners League objective was to finish in the top four. They finished third.

En route they registered a number of significant wins. Home and away victories over Cardiff for the first time since 2005/06; a first-ever double at the Scarlets’ expense; Dragons beaten in Newport for the first time in four attempts; doubles against each of the Italian newcomers in their first season in the Magners League.

The away win against Scarlets is worth highlighting given that since the introduction of the Magners League format in 2003/04 all but one of Ulster’s previous visits to Llanelli had ended in ignominious defeat — 23-16, 22-9, 17-11, 32-8, 43-17 and 23-6. The one exception was a 12-12 draw in May 2006.

There was a downside to the league campaign, however — Ulster’s poor record against fellow-Irish provinces. Leinster and Munster beat them home and away, with the former rubbing salt in the wound by winning Friday night’s second versus third Magners League play-off at the RDS, thereby completing a 2010/11 hat-trick against Ulster.

Ulster drew 15-15 against Connacht in Galway followed by a 27-16 Belfast win against the westerners.

Those defeats by Leinster and Munster were the only blots on Ulster’s Ravenhill record in either competition.

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So the salient facts are these: in 2007/08 Ulster finished ninth of 10 in the Magners League; in 2008/09 and again in 2009/10 they were eighth of 10; in 2010/11 they were third of 12.

In the European Cup, having failed each year since 1999 to get beyond the group stage, this time they qualified for the quarter-finals. Put like that, it has been a pretty impressive campaign.

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