Jonathan Bradley: Giving youth its chance is a strategy that can help Ulster scale heights again
Before Dan McFarland had even gotten his feet under the table in his new Kingspan Stadium office, he had sought out information on Ulster's Academy set-up.
There will have been little doubt that the incoming head coach was aware the under-age systems at his new gig were a fairly maligned operation, but what the long-time Connacht man needed to know was the prospect of any of the latest batch of young talent becoming what he calls 'CC (Champions Cup) players'.
Irish internationals such as Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding, as well as Scottish Lion Tommy Seymour, had all emerged during 1999 European Cup winner Gary Longwell's tenure heading up the structures, but in the years since it's been less a production line and more a production trickle when it comes to players capable of mixing it in Europe's top competition.
While Jacob Stockdale is now a star, he has been the exception rather than the rule.
But, under the stewardship of Kieran Campbell and Willie Anderson, the tide finally seems to be turning, while last season saw promising senior cameos from the likes of Tom O'Toole, Angus Curtis and Matt Dalton.
McFarland's early conversations with Campbell centred on "succession planning" and the long-term but it's been his commitment to youth early on that means, in his side's biggest game of the season against European heavyweights Racing 92 this afternoon, it was no surprise to see the coach back two Academy men to be those 'CC' players he craves.
Robert Baloucoune, who in 2016-17 was representing Enniskillen in junior rugby, made his debut against Dragons back in October. As if that wasn't enough of a leap, he's been handed the No.14 jersey today fresh off a two-week ban for a dangerous tackle committed against Munster before Christmas.
It would have been a seemingly safer selection for McFarland to re-jig his back-line, moving Will Addison to full-back and Louis Ludik to the wing and plump for tried and tested former Irish ace Darren Cave at outside centre.
That, however, has not been McFarland's modus operandi, so often giving youth its chance.
Eric O'Sullivan is another example. The Dublin-born loosehead, who moved north in 2017 having not been offered a place in the Leinster Academy, has been the best story of Ulster's season.
Having never played a pro game before this campaign, he made his debut in the PRO14 opener and, before last week's loss to Leinster, had played in every game this season.
Even as a front-rower, his 783 minutes is the sixth most in the entire squad, behind only Stuart McCloskey, Sean Reidy, Marcell Coetzee, Billy Burns and Kieran Treadwell.
In all, the youth movement has been hastened by the dramatic exit of so many experienced figures. Callum Black, Tommy Bowe, Robbie Diack, Paul Marshall, Charles Piutau, Jared Payne and Andrew Trimble - who all left or retired last summer - had represented the side on over 1,000 occasions, and that tally doesn't even take into account the torn-up contracts of Jackson and Stuart Olding.
The exodus continued apace into this season too where over the course of the last four months Chris Henry, Jean Deysel, Rodney Ah You, Pete Browne and Schalk van der Merwe have all either retired or been allowed to leave, while McFarland has used only 33 players on full senior contracts this campaign, three of whom have already moved on.
Players in their 30s are beginning to feel something of an endangered species with only five remaining, namely Rory Best, Ludik, Cave, Wiehahn Herbst and the on-loan Ian Nagle.
In the breach, seven members of the Academy - which doesn't include a further seven who have featured this year while playing on development deals - have combined for 48 outings in McFarland's 17 games in charge.
For context, the eight men who have been capped by Joe Schmidt during his tenure have contributed 76 selections.
The reliance on young players is clear and it's the kind of policy required if, using Leinster as an example, an Irish province has any hope of success.
Irrespective of today's result, Ulster know that all things being equal, they are not at the same level as today's opposition.
If they ever are to be again, the solution will come from within.
Ulster vs Racing 92
Heineken Champions Cup - Pool Four
Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 3.15pm