It's all a rather familiar tale; Ulster get into position to seemingly challenge for silverware and then come up short when making their mark in the knockout stages is beckoning them. Michael Sadlier looks at just where things went wrong (again) and what possible fixes might be made for next season.
1. Faltering when the heat is turned up
No one ever said it would be a stroll to end 16 years of hurt without a trophy, but when it comes to self-inflicted wounds, Ulster just keep shipping damage.
Here’s just a flavour of it: They lost at Munster despite playing most of the game against 14 men but more painfully surrendered a 79th-minute try at 14-man Toulouse which came back to bite them hard in the return leg and then infiltrated their poor showing at home to Munster in the regular season.
There was also a tendency to concede cheap points or go through periods without scoring at all with what happened at Cape Town last weekend being the most glaring example.
2. Might there be a leadership deficit?
Skipper Iain Henderson’s injury-disrupted season didn’t exactly help but then again he wouldn’t have played a huge number of times for Ulster anyway and turned out 11 times.
His performance in the Quarter-Final destruction of Munster was vintage stuff, but what of the other leaders?
Alan O’Connor, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Stuart McCloskey, Duane Vermeulen and Nick Timoney are all inspirational figures on the field — and not forgetting that Sam Carter was selected for a while as skipper — therefore providing leadership responsibilities aplenty from key positions on the park.
Still, there were examples of a lack of composure in high-pressure plays that proved rather costly to sit alongside Ulster’s, at times, terrible luck.
3. Squad depth not wholly trusted
The coach makes the calls and Dan McFarland clearly knew his most effective team and stuck to it as best as he could for the business end of the season.
Against Munster in the League Quarter-Final, Tom O’Toole went virtually the whole distance in a game already won and played over 80 minutes until breaking down in Cape Town.
Vermeulen was the same, while Timoney kept putting in 80-minuters and Rob Herring was busy too.
Maybe this caught up with Ulster in Cape Town where Ian Madigan only came on at the end, as did Gareth Milasinovich, while Nathan Doak and John Andrew stayed on the bench.
Strange calls indeed, unless head coach McFarland lacked faith in his back-ups on the bench.
4. Is there some baggage after all?
It’s previously been said that what has gone before in terms of Ulster’s failure to win trophies is of no consequence to this crop of players.
Maybe, but the stars of the current team have still managed to gather up their own collection of near misses which must surely prey on them in moments of reflection.
Alongside this season’s Cape Town Semi-Final experience and the agonisingly unlucky double-header against Toulouse, there is the failure to make the Challenge Cup Final when collapsing at Leicester in 2021, the PRO14 Final defeat to Leinster in 2020 and the previous year’s gloom when Ulster were unable to see their southern neighbours off in the European Cup Quarter-Final.
Not so great.
1. Keeping the front-row seats filled
It’s not new that Ulster are looking potentially a bit thin when it comes to big-game front-row players, though tight-heads Marty Moore and Tom O’Toole are both quality operators.
The signing of All Black Jeffery Toomaga-Allen is probably more geared towards O’Toole being away with Ireland, but what of loose-head? Andy Warwick has had a strong season, while Eric O’Sullivan and the inexperienced Callum Reid are the cover, though Milasinovich can play there as well now that Jack McGrath has gone. Ulster could do with a key signing here.
As for hooker, Herring will likely be with Ireland leaving the inexperienced Tom Stewart and Declan Moore and out-of-favour John Andrew on the roster.
2. More perfect 10s please
It seems that Billy Burns is clearly the go-to out-half after playing and starting in 24 of Ulster’s 26 games. But what about the back-up?
Madigan and Michael Lowry provided here but the former barely played and the latter was, well, heavily involved with his well-defined duties at 15.
Jake Flannery has been brought in from Munster, but the reality is that Ulster look fully locked in to utilising Burns, which is fine until he picks up a knock or has a loss of form.
And as players often admit, it’s important to have a strong challenger behind. That’s currently not the case at Ulster.
3. Greater squad depth required
Few have the resources of Leinster but then that didn’t work too well for them this season when it came to the only currency which matters which is winning trophies.
Ulster’s depth chart looks particularly strong at centre and in the back three, assuming both Will Addison and Jacob Stockdale return for the new season, but they have issues in the front-row and at out-half while the hope is that more will be seen of Doak and Jordi Murphy next term, while young lock Cormac Izuchukwu hopefully gets game time.
It’s a difficult balancing act for McFarland – resources and the need for Ireland-qualified players being drivers – in what will be another challenging task.
4. Dealing with the extra mileage
Ulster showed that winning away from home is no flash in the pan after results from Clermont, Northampton, Leinster and Toulouse but it’s the cross-hemisphere travel that will need special attention.
All the teams must put in the considerable hike in air miles and, as such, cope with disruption in addition to having to perform. This will also apply to Europe.
The vagaries of knockout rugby make this more difficult in terms of last-minute planning plus it could have worked out that Ulster would have hot-footed it back from Cape Town to Belfast for yesterday’s Final where the Bulls would have been already located. All now part of the new reality.