There is understandable confusion over Ulster’s exact status in the rugby world.
Certainly those whose interest in the code runs no deeper than pricking their ears up on hearing ‘Ulster’ when sports results are read aloud are baffled by the ups and downs of a side capable of crashing to a 25-8 defeat at the hands of Scarlets and of beating Ospreys 20-16, Bath 28-10 and Edinburgh 37-25, away from home in each case.
So let’s examine some facts.
Going into 2009/10, one of Ulster’s stated goals was a place in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup.
Did they achieve it? No.
In the event of failure, the fall-back position was to have been qualification for the quarter-finals of the subsidiary competition, the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Did they achieve that? No.
In the Magners League the objective was a top four finish earning them a place in the play-offs.
Did they achieve that? No.
So it appears to have been just another chapter is an on-going story of failure and under-achievement. But there’s more to it than that, for which reason any dismissal of 2009/10 in so brusque a manner may just be a mite unfair. Because although results and the league table suggest otherwise, there is genuine conviction that Ulster have made progress this term.
Cue cries of “Same old story; heard it all before.”
Such cynicism is wholly understandable and those of a doubting disposition can be forgiven for feeling that it’s a re-run of a familiar yarn, the end of which they know all too well. So why should they believe now?
At the outset I would cite two very good reasons; Johannes (Johann) Muller and Xavier Rush, both of whom will be Ulster players next season.
The Amlin Cup final will be Rush’s final match for the Cardiff Blues and their loss is very much a case of Ulster’s gain. If in doubt, make a point of watching the former All Black in televised action against Toulon at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille on Sunday, May 23.
Like Rush, Muller has proved himself on the international stage, in his case in the colours of South Africa, albeit that we have seen less of him than of the New Zealander given that the Springbok has plied his trade with Sharks in the Super 14 rather than in the northern hemisphere.
As a forward double act they will bring class, experience and vast heat-of-the-battle nous to Ulster’s table. Those working alongside them at Newforge and playing in their company on the pitch stand to benefit greatly.
Brian McLaughlin will return a much more streetwise man. The Ulster coach knows where it went wrong and can be relied upon to work towards ensuring that the mistakes of 2009/10 are not repeated. And while it has been an at-times-painful learning process for the players, they should be better, not worse, as a result of that experience. By dint of remembering the pain through which they have come, they strive to avoid any more of it. But arguably the biggest factor will be the knowledge that when they play as they can, Ulster are a very good team.
So rather than dwelling on what they failed to achieve, they should focus on victories in four of their six Heineken Cup group stage matches — including one on the road — and on Magners League victories over champions Leinster and star-studded Ospreys who finished second, the latter success also having come away from home.
They ought also to remind themselves of 39 Magners League tries scored and compare that with the try-scoring exploits of the top four — Leinster (27), Ospreys (37), Glasgow Warriors (31) and Munster (33).
Ulster also banked four try-scoring bonuses and only Edinburgh managed to match that achievement.
So cause for optimism? Yes.