Ulster’s best in mood to impress at Twickenham
Among the pre-season goals Ulster’s players set themselves was qualification for the latter stages of one or other of the two European knock-out competitions and a top four finish in the Magners League.
They have missed out on the first of those, of course, and following Friday night’s Ravenhill draw with Newport Gwent Dragons, attainment of the second will be very difficult now.
But a third objective — to have more Ulstermen in the running for Irish honours — has been achieved, a fact confirmed by the inclusion of seven of them in Ireland’s 32-man panel for this weekend’s RSB 6 Nations Championship date with England at Twickenham.
Five of the seven — Rory Best, Tom Court, Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace — have made the grade as full internationals.
And by awarding Chris Henry the captaincy of Ireland A, Declan Kidney has made a very public declaration as to the regard in which he holds the Ulster skipper.
Clearly Henry’s star has risen rapidly and high in the Irish coach’s eyes.
With the 2011 World Cup there to motivate him, the Ulster No. 8 is staking a claim for a seat on the New Zealand-bound plane.
Lock, Dan Tuohy, is another Ulsterman who has forced his way into the reckoning by dint of excellent form.
His inclusion in the squad ahead of the England game confirms that he is closing in on a first senior cap, having leapfrogged club colleague Ryan Caldwell in the process.
“We discussed this during the pre-season when we were in France. Obviously as players we are ambitious and one of the things we said was that the chances of any of us getting a call-up obviously would be better if Ulster performed well,” Henry said.
“I think that’s what you’re seeing happening now.”
“That was a goal we set ourselves, so it’s great to see more Ulster players being called up to the various squads,” he said.
“We benefit as individuals as a result of Ulster performing well as a team.
“It’s fair to say that Munster and Leinster have had far more players than us up until now and I suppose you really can’t argue with that.
“They have been winning things and I think the numbers they’ve had in the Irish team reflects the success they’ve had in the Heineken Cup and Magners League.”
Ferris also made the point ahead of the start of the RBS 6 Nations Championship.
“Playing well against top quality opposition gets you noticed. The more experience you have at that level, the better your chance,” he reasoned.
“That’s one of the reasons why matches against the likes of Stade Francais and Bath are so important.”
Ulster coach, Brian McLaughlin, also voiced his satisfaction at having seen an increasing number of his players gaining recognition, albeit that their absence in November for the autumn series and more recently in response to Ireland’s call for the Six Nations served to derail things at Ravenhill.
McLaughlin’s response to his players’ autumnal recognition was: “It’s their reward for having worked very hard and I’m very pleased for them.
“As well as our Irish players we had BJ (Botha) away with South Africa, Simon (Danielli) with Scotland and Timoci (Nagusa) with Fiji so we’re not short of internationals.”
That disruption comes at a price, however. When Ulster returned to action after the November break they lost at home to Glasgow in what McLaughlin called “our worst performance of the season”.
Friday night’s draw with Newport Gwent Dragons following the latest four-week shutdown to accommodate the Six Nations again suggested that Ulster’s cause suffers as a result of the disruption caused by international calls.
That’s ironic given the players’ assertion that the likelihood of donning the green is boosted by virtue of the province faring well.
It’s noticeable that Leinster and Munster both won at the weekend, despite having been similarly affected by international demands.
And it is also true that Magners League champions Munster and Heineken Cup holders Leinster each have provided 10 of the latest 32-strong Irish squad, confirming the points made by Ferris and Wallace.