Willie Anderson believes top-class rugby stars are desperately needed
Ulster and Ireland legend Willie Anderson believes that the province are in need of more star quality if they are to launch another serious assault on Europe in the coming seasons.
Neil Doak's men offered a spirited showing against back-to-back champions Toulon in the Cote D'Azur on Saturday afternoon but all they had to show for their efforts was a try-bonus point and a record 60-22 defeat.
The reverse ended any mathematical possibility of Ulster somehow making the knock-out stages of the tournament but, in truth, the damage had already been inflicted in the Midlands and the west of Wales.
Defeats to Leicester Tigers in October and the Scarlets in December had already extinguished any realistic hope of progression and Anderson feels that the squads of recent seasons would have found a way to win those fixtures.
Huge upheaval in the summer not only brought change at the top, with both Director of Rugby David Humphreys and Head Coach Mark Anscombe departing, but also saw the likes of Johann Muller, John Afoa, Stephen Ferris, Tom Court and Paddy Wallace all either retire or move on, with Anderson feeling that their replacements lacked the sufficient big-game qualities.
"When you look at those who left, they weren't really replaced with the same type of player," said the 27-times capped Irish international.
"Those were some big, big players who left and it was always going to be a big job to replace them. When you look at the side now, you would say that it really needs one, two, three world class talents but it will be a question of finance.
"A few seasons of not progressing in Europe will hit the finances hard and it's a downward spiral you don't want to be getting in to.
"Johann Muller is a player who came in and raised the standard for everyone and that's the type of player you would probably say Ulster need again, someone who is going to come in and lift the squad.
"Finance is going to be the main issue but there's also the problem of success. If you're a world class talent you'll be thinking, 'If I go there will I be able to get the trophies I want?'"
Ferris recently accused the IRFU of holding the provinces back when it comes to making big name signings but, if the rules on Non-Irish Qualified players should prohibit the addition of international stars, Anderson thinks it's time for a more creative approach.
"Especially in a World Cup year, Ireland has to be the most important thing," he said.
"If Ireland are to be successful at the World Cup, then the coaching staff have to have the Irish boys playing and not sitting on the bench. From that point of view, I can understand that bringing in players has to be a balancing act.
"People think that signing world class talents means foreign stars but they forget about the talent in Ireland.
"Look at the success that Connacht have had by bringing in players from New Zealand but also players who weren't getting a game at Leinster.
"There is so much talent at Leinster sitting on the bench. There is no doubt that some of those back-row players would improve Ulster."
Anderson does not feel there is an absence of on-field direction. He added: "The likes of Rory Best, (Ruan) Pienaar and (Roger) Wilson are good leaders and they will consistently set the standard. With those leaders in place, maybe it's time for a bit of a truth session.
"For me, the gameplan this season, it's been a bit too easy for some teams to pick through it.
"It could be time to see if this gameplan is working or is it time to try something new."