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Despite their start to the domestic season, Europe is still the best gauge of where Ulster really are as a team

Perfect start to PRO14 not a true reflection as quality level starts to rise

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Touching down: Toulouse winger Cheslin Kolbe scores a try against Ulster during last season’s European quarter-final

Touching down: Toulouse winger Cheslin Kolbe scores a try against Ulster during last season’s European quarter-final

AFP via Getty Images

Touching down: Toulouse winger Cheslin Kolbe scores a try against Ulster during last season’s European quarter-final

Dan McFarland can be forgiven for straight-batting this particular question.

When asked whether he thought the system adopted for this season's Champions Cup could last beyond this campaign, his answer amounted, essentially, to 'above my pay grade'.

While a year like no other has necessitated a format like no other, the rest of us can freely say that, both in life and in knockout rugby, let's hope we are back to normal as soon as possible.

What was once arguably among the very finest club competitions in any sport has been diminished over the past decade, petty squabbles over cash as well as the priority given to domestic matters by some entrants robbing it of some of its lustre, but at least things were able to stay somewhat close to a well-established formula.

If your new format requires a two minute, twenty second video by way of an explainer, it probably doesn't have much in the way of long-term prospects.

Still, like so much of 2020, we must make do with what we have.

An unbalanced fixture list and whistle-stop tour through the pool stages may well produce an unusual set of quarter-finalists, one that will also be missing Saracens as the 2019 champions serve their season in the Championship and away from the spotlight after breaches of the salary cap.

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But whoever is celebrating in Marseille come the end of the season will be no less a worthy winner and, at present, this competition serves a purpose far beyond determining who will be lifting the silverware.

That is never more evident than when we look at where Ulster's season would be without it.

It would be unfair to judge the Guinness PRO14 by the last two months alone when so many teams have been decimated by reduced playing budgets and international call-ups, but there is little doubt that it has come to feel somewhat routine.

As we break for Europe, the four Irish provinces occupy the top two spots in each Conference, while Leinster, Ulster and Munster boast a combined record of played 25, won 25, with many of those victories having the feeling of a foregone conclusion long before the final whistle.

Ideal format or not, this is still the yardstick that Irish sides will have been longing for in recent weeks, a chance for Ulster especially to judge just how much progress they've made over the past three months.

That tonight's opener, like last season's quarter-final, will be against Toulouse provides a neat symmetry, but it's not just the French giants that will provide a step up in opposition.

Gloucester haven't enjoyed the best of starts to the delayed Premiership season, beating Wasps but losing to Leicester Tigers and Harlequins, but, with their internationals back in harness, will provide a test too, especially at Kingsholm next week.

While the challenge that awaits is considerable, it is one to be embraced, befitting of the strides made by Ulster under McFarland over the past two and a half years.

Come 10pm this evening, they'll know more about themselves, how far they've come and how far they still have to go - not something they can say on every match day morning.

If the PRO14 makes it hard to measure where a side stands, Europe, for its flaws, remains Ulster's best mirror.

"In terms of the step, yes, I am worried about that, and we have spoken about it as a team," admitted McFarland about the size of the leap the season is about to take.

"I genuinely don't want to denigrate any of the opposition we have been playing because a lot of them have been decimated by international call-ups and missing guys through injury.

"Edinburgh would be a classic example, they struggled with the number of players missing. We are missing a lot of backs and a couple of our forwards, maybe three or four, but we have a lot of experienced forwards who played during that time and the young backs who have been playing have done a great job.

"The bottom line is we won all eight games and got bonus points in six of them.

"Is that a trend you expect to carry on through European and interprovincial games? Absolutely not, that is not going to happen.

"It is a totally different world coming into Europe, we are playing against a Toulouse team that is packed with size and experience up front and unbelievable plethora of talent in the backs, so it is a different world and we won't know whether that lack of being tested over the last wee while is going to count against us.

"But I know we're playing a lot better. We're playing a lot freer now than we were back then.

"Guys prior to the quarter-final or start of the new block who weren't in such good form are playing well now, we have a little bit more cohesion with some of the young fellas in the backs who didn't get much time together prior to that.

"There are plenty of things there that have improved. Whether Toulouse have improved or not, I don't know. I'm not sure.

"They will say they have because they hadn't played many games at that stage (in September) but I know we've improved."

Now, they finally get the chance to show it.

Belfast Telegraph


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