We're under starter’s orders and at 7.05pm tonight the pistol will be fired. Welcome to another season of RaboDirect PRO12 action.
It is not a sprint. It’s a 22-round endurance test designed to sort the men from the boys over the course of the next nine months during which they will be required to clear hurdles in the form of upsets and injustices — both real and perceived — slalom their way round huge obstacles in the form of colleagues and comrades missing through injuries, international duty and related rest periods, and just keep going at moments when every muscle, sinew and nerve is screaming for respite.
The PRO12 begins at the start of autumn, continues through the depths of winter and ends in late spring/early summer depending on Mother Nature’s mood.
Last season Ulster finished sixth of the 12 runners, missing out on a place in the play-offs as a result. They lost 10 of their 22 matches, a statistic which chief executive officer Shane Logan said “wasn’t good enough”.
Adieu Brian McLaughlin, the former coach’s achievement in steering Ulster to the Heineken Cup final notwithstanding.
His replacement, Mark Anscombe, has been left in no doubt as to what constitutes success — a top four finish in the PRO12 and inclusion in the knock-out stage of the Heineken Cup.
That won’t be easy, given that Leinster have been top-four ever-presents since 2006, Munster have missed out just once in that time (2007 when they were 6th) and Ospreys have been up there, too, in each of the past three seasons, going on to win the title twice.
There is a hierarchy which does not include Ulster. Third place in 2011 does not merit a place at the top table. After all, Edinburgh, having finished second in 2009, can better Ulster’s claim. And by virtue of three top-four finishes in 2006, 2007 and 2008, Cardiff Blues trump it, as do Glasgow with two (2010 and 2012).
If Anscombe is to meet his employers’ demands, his squad must prove itself big enough and good enough to cope in the lengthy absence of international players. There are going to be long periods when the likes of Rory Best, Tom Court, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble et al are not going to be available as a result of Ireland’s call.
There will be others, too. Declan Fitzpatrick, Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Darren Cave and Paul Marshall were in New Zealand with Ireland and clearly are in the frame. Roger Wilson and Craig Gilroy could well be. And younger players like Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Chris Cochrane, Iain Henderson and Niall Annett are likely to be away at times.
To this exodus add in injuries which, in a physical contact sport, are inevitable. Before a ball had been kicked, Ulster lost loose-head Paddy McAllister for the entire campaign due to a serious knee ligaments injury sustained in a training session.
Injuries are unavoidable and player unavailability is a reality that goes with the territory of a being successful. Look at European champions, Leinster, who open at Scarlets tomorrow evening; they are minus 11 fully-fit internationals plus a further seven players — Luke Fitzgerald, Mark Flanagan, Conor Gilsenan, David Kearney, Sean O’Brien, Eoin O’Malley and Rhys Ruddock — who are ruled out through injury.
They finished last weekend’s drawn friendly at Sale Sharks with 13 Academy players on the pitch and coach Joe Schmidt’s philosophical approach was: “It’s giving others a chance to show what they can do.”
No point moaning. Point taken?
Ulster have shown impressive form in their three pre-season outings. Circumstances have forced them to blood youngsters who have stepped up. Anscombe has vowed to select based on what he sees and clearly that has given these cubs a real incentive.
They are motivated. They do not see themselves as mere jersey-fillers until such times as a more ‘established player’ is available. Their attitude is: “If you want my jersey you’re going to have to fight me for it.”
There is more depth than before. Those who were here last season are a year older and wiser. Bowe and Wilson are back and Jared Payne is fit again after his lost season. That’s three players of real quality added to the mix.
While it would be remarkable if Ulster were to improve on last term’s Heineken Cup heroics, I have no doubt that they will better their 2011/12 PRO12 form. This side will not lose 10 matches in that competition.
1 Prove that Ravenhill is a bastion no visitors will leave other than empty-handed. The first two home matches are against Glasgow Warriors and old provincial foes Munster, two of last year’s PRO12 top four. Beat them and send out an early message to all others.
2 Ensure that Ulster play an exciting, attacking, passionate brand of rugby to get the partisan home crowd on board. Supporters salute courage and they will forgive just about anything other than lethargy, so don’t be afraid to take risks and the rewards and praise will follow.
3 Adhere to your commitment of playing to win every game. That is a promise which has delighted those who pay good money to watch Ulster. But now they expect to see clear evidence that those weren’t just mere words. Expectation levels are at an all-time high and second is not enough.
4 You have vowed — to the players and supporters alike — that inclusion will depend on form rather than reputation. That is as it should be, so don’t shy away from fielding a hungry youngster at the expense of a complacent senior. Those who have the shirt should expect to keep it.
5 In so far as is possible, keep the admission-paying public at Ulster Rugby headquarters fully informed of what’s going on at Ravenhill and with the squad. It is in your best interests that they are on your side, so be honest, be open and be up-front about as much as you can.
OSPREYS v ULSTER (Saturday, September 8): A trip to the defending PRO12 champions should give Ulster a fair idea of where they are early on in the season. Ospreys have lost a number of top-quality players — including Tommy Bowe to Ulster — so they are rebuilding. Ulster must aim to take advantage and make a telling statement of intent.
ULSTER v MUNSTER (Friday, September 14): Traditionally one of the best attended matches of the season, a visit by Munster is always a box-office high point. Ulster’s memorable Heineken Cup quarter-final win in Limerick on Easter Sunday sparked suggestions of a change in Irish rugby’s pecking order. This is a chance to add credence to that suggestion.
ULSTER v LEINSTER (Friday, December 21): Four days before Christmas, following hard on the heels of back-to-back Heineken Cup weekends, the European champions visit the home of the club they crushed at Twickenham to claim that title back in May. Bench-markers Leinster are the team to emulate. What a festive boost if Ulster could clip their wings.