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We're capable of winning a trophy: Four Ulster figures outline hopes for the season ahead

 

By Jonathan Bradley

Back in 2011, when Ulster made a return to the knockout stages of Europe for the first time since their Cup-winning campaign of 1999, it signalled something of a rebirth for the northern province.

With imports like Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller having mixed with homegrown stars such as Rory Best, Andrew Trimble and Stephen Ferris, they had in place a squad that could compete with the majority of Europe, even if Leinster were still in a class of their own.

But rather than the huge defeat in the next season's Heineken Cup final acting as an indicator that there was still some way to go to be the very best, instead it seemed that the side's presence in the latter stages of tournaments was now seen as commonplace.

The weight of expectation grew exponentially.

Silverware or bust became an increasingly held view entering subsequent seasons and so, until now, it remained.

While more genuine chances of trophies were derailed in unfortunate circumstances - in 2013 by playing a 'home' PRO12 final against Leinster in the RDS, and the next season with Jared Payne's early red card against Saracens in a European quarter-final - as many of those squads drifted away, hopes on the terraces of ending a title drought stretching back to 2006 remained undiminished.

But, after last season's reality check, ahead of the new campaign that begins against Scarlets on Saturday evening (5.15pm kick-off at Kingspan Stadium) it feels as if even the most partisan of supporters aren't envisaging ultimate glory come May.

We asked four key Ulster figures what would represent a good season for the province:

Rory Best (Ulster and Ireland captain)

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Rory Best

"You have to be realistic but you don't want to set the bar too low. We take the season in sections and we have to aim to be in the quarter-finals of Europe. If we fall short but show a lot on the way there, like we have in some recent seasons, then that's something to build on.

"When you take the European and league season as two separate things, last year the league was very different. If you fall short by a point, points difference, head-to-head, you look back frustrated but know that you were close.

"I know we're capable of challenging for the knockouts and, come that end of January time, that's where I want us to be.

"In the league, we have to get into the play-offs. We don't want to be in the game we were in last year (a Champions Cup qualifier) because that's not a nice place to be.

"If you're talking about sections, we have to make it so that we don't have to win every single game in the run-in.

"You want a case where, if you do that, you're guaranteed at the minimum a place in the wider play-offs. When you get greedy, you start to think about semi-finals and home semi-finals."

Chris Henry (Ulster and Ireland flanker)

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Chris Henry
 

"Like every year, you want to get to the play-offs and you want to get out of the group (in Europe). I don't think that ever changes.

"But we want to surprise people. We're going into this year and I don't think there is massive expectation on us. There's been a lot of chat about building something on a two or three-year development. But for me, I don't see why it would have to take that long.

"I hope we can surprise people. I'm not saying we're going to win everything, but on our day we can mix it with the best of them.

"That doesn't change, we just have to try and get more consistent."

Bryn Cunningham (Ulster Operations Director and 1999 European Cup winner)

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Ulster Rugby Operations Director Bryn Cunningham
 

"It is still quite an exciting time for us. If you look at the guys we lost last year, they had a huge influence on Ulster Rugby for a number of years but, if you were being brutally honest, last year there was probably only one player who was nailed on as a starter and that was Charles Piutau.

"The other guys were not necessarily, when we had our strongest team out, on the starting team list.

"When we look at where we are moving to next season, we have added Billy Burns, Marty Moore, Jordi Murphy and Will Addison and they are all hopefully starters for us. On paper the first team should be in a stronger position than we were last year.

"We are also realistic about what our ambitions are as well. Internally, of course, we want to win trophies and that will be our main goal moving forward over the next number of years, but it is about building a really, really strong squad and we have the core group there to be able to do that.

"We have a good age profile in our squad, we still have the leadership of the likes of Rory (Best), which is absolutely critical to this group, particularly for this next season. Then you have that group who have been leaders within their own teams before coming here, and then you have that young talent coming through as well. I actually think we are in a stronger place this season and will be for the next number of years."

Luke Marshall (Ulster and Ireland centre)

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Luke Marshall
 

"I still think we're capable of winning a trophy this year, I'm not going to say we're incapable of doing that because I think we are. The minimum requirement for me is the play-offs, and I think we're capable of the play-offs in both competitions.

"It's hard to say what's an acceptable target but I think we're definitely capable, and if you make the play-offs then there's always a chance you'll go on and win a trophy. We know how important it is to get a good start and get up to the top of the table because that makes it a lot easier.

"It will be tough but I think teams will underestimate us this year. If you were one of the other teams and you saw the players we lost, you're thinking, 'Ulster are a bit under par this year'.

"But I think we have a real ability to shock a few teams with the young guys we have coming through and the new guys we've signed."

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