It’s been a pretty memorable season for Ulster – their best campaign in 13 years, some unforgettable games, huge strides made by the team - but you would be pushed to say it’s been an unmitigated success. Taking only the Heineken Cup, its been an A, but everything else (league, off-field activities) is more like B. Now that the champagne and tears have tried up after Twickers, a more mature realisation is taking place that Ulster will need to continue the hard work if they are to repeat, or improve on, 2011-12.
In Europe, it’s hard to see how they could have done better – a character-filled grind at home to Clermont, a Tiger-tonking and a crucial point in Clermont, followed by an historic win in Thomond, a memorable occasion in the Palindrome, and the trip to Twickenham, where the performance was good … on a stage where merely being good is not enough. But no shame, far from it, plenty of pride and lots to build on.
In the league, not so much. Sixth place in the Pro12 reflects the lack of quality of Ulster’s backups, and was holed beneath the waterline by 4 successive losses in September/October. In the context of the HEC run, it’s probably just acceptable, but no more, and certainly won’t be next season, when another step forward is needed.
The most impressive thing about this year from Ulster was the sheer volume of players who had their best season to date at the province – Tom Court, Rory Best, Dan Tuohy, Fez, Chris Henry, Pedrie Wanneberg, Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave. Add this to the breakthroughs by Declan Fitzpatrick, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy and Iain Henderson and the steady hands on the tiller of Muller, Pienaar and Terblanche and reason for this years progression is obvious – the players dammit.
Ulster are now an an altitude where they feel comfortable and at home - challenging for trophies and primacy among the provinces. The burning desire pushing Ulster forward in recent years has been the success of their compatriots in Europe – Leinster and (particularly) Munster’s achievments have not gone down well in a province used to being Number 1. What Ulster desperately need to prove is that this year not a flash in the pan – they need to consolidate their second ranking in the inter-provincial sphere and start looking for viable ways to target Leinster.
Ulster’s signature performance in the 2010-11 season was a mucky and ugly victory over a mucky and ugly Biarritz, and the defining one was a lightweight and inexperienced capitulation to a Northampton team that looks worse after their own follow-up year (note to self: don’t be the Saints). This year, the defining matches were of a much higher level – the slaughtering of Leicester Tigers in Ravers, the near-miss in the Auvergne, the epic victory in Munster, the nervy win in front of 50k in the Palindrome and the respectable showing against the team of the era in London.
Not only does each of those games drive the team forward, but it ticks a box that every team needs if it is to set down a longer-term marker. Think of Munster’s matches in those categories (Gloucester 2002 – slaughter, Northampton 2000 – near-miss, Leinster 2006 – epic victory, Biarritz 2006 – nervy win) and Leinster’s (Toulouse 2006 – slaughter, Munster 2006 – defeat to team of era, Quins 2009 – nervy win, Munster 2009 – epic victory) and they are key checkpoints in the evolution of the team.
So, how are Ulster positioned to continue moving forward?
The most obvious risk is in the coaching staff. Ulster have the luxury of a permanent administration, led by Humph and Shane Logan. Beneath them, there is Neil Doak, Gary Longwell and now former head coach Brian McLaughlin. And contained in their somewhere is Rory Best and Johann Muller. This strong base ensures that the new coach coming in won’t upset the applecart too much, and, indeed, should seamlessly fit in. One has to presume Mark Anscombe knows that Humph is the boss with the grand vision, and that his role is confined to picking the team and complying with edicts from Deccie as regards player availability.
You would suspect that the new regime will not blow up in Ulster faces, given the continuity upstairs and in playing personnel, particularly bigger names like Best, Muller, Fez, Pienaar, Wallace and Trimble, but it’s still a risk. Ulster are second seeds for the HEC next season, and, as such, are likely to have an easier draw than this year, but it doesn’t do to start slowly.
On the playing side, Ulster will be losing Kyriacou (replaced hopefully by Niall Annett), Wannenburg (Roger Wilson), iHumph (Niall O’Connor it appears – eek), Simon Danielli (Tommy Bowe) and Stefan Terblanche (Jared Payne, who he was covering in any case). We’d say on aggregate the P&L on these deals is slightly positive for Ulster, offset by the fact the two losses are in key positions – 10 and 8, with 10 the biggest concern.
While Ulster’s front 5 depth is decent and improving (Court/McAlister, Best/Annett, Afoa/Fitzpatrick/Macklin, Muller/Stevenson, Tuohy/Henderson), and back 5 depth is pretty good (Wallace/L Marshall, Cave/Spence, Gilroy/Trimble/Bowe/Gaston, Payne/D’arcy); but from 6-10 they look shallow.
After Ferris, Henry, Wilson, Pienaar, Jackson you are looking at only Diack, Henderson (double-jobbing at 6), Paul Marshall and Niall O’Connor. Given Ferris isn’t going to give you more than 15 games a year and Pienaar’s stated ambition to play 9, allied to the fact Jackson surely can’t play much more than 15 games himself, you need to accept that Robbie Diack and Niall O’Connor are going to play a lot of games for Ulster. Without wishing to wail on them too much, Diack and O’Connor played a lot of games in 2008/09, and that year’s standard of play is unacceptable at this stage in Ulster’s development.
Anyway, let’s finish on a high note – its been a fantastic year for the province, chock-full of memorable moments, breakthrough players and huge advances. We’ll never forget it, and, lets hope its built on next year. Now, is it true the Chinese symbol for risk and opportunity are the same?!
Season to remember: Darren Cave began the season behind Nevin Spence, and ends it only behind Brian O’Driscoll – the breakthrough season Cave had always threatened
Season to forget: In our Ulster season preview, we said Willie Faloon was a classy, genuine openside who had a chance to nail down and balance a rather pedestrian backrow. In the event, it was Henry who became the genuine groundhog, and Falloon was largely anonymous and got bossed badly by Ross Rennie on the big stage. He will hopefully redeem himself next year … in Connacht
Best match: Thomond Park – one of the great HEC knock-out games. Had no ball, and scored only 3 points from Munster’s half. Maniacal defence and frenzied tackling did the rest
Best performance: the away loss in Clermont – came as close as anyone to breaking the remarkable Marcel Michelin home record – may have been able to close it out had they the Munster win under their belts at that stage
Worst performance: Take your pick of any of the games prior to the big boys returning from NZ. We’ll have the home loss to Treviso, thanks
Thanks for the memories: Pedrie Wannenbosh – originally thought of as an agricultural contact merchant, his incredible hands against Leicester won’t be forgotten easily
See you next season: Tommy Bowe returns home, and, oddly for someone who has achieved so much in his time away, will need to work for his place. He’ll get it though, and he’ll be brilliant.