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Great Expectations

by fermain on Mon Dec 10, 2012 1:34 pm
  • 1 vote
(1 vote)

by DC

On the back of the greatest all round performance of this season, and indeed perhaps our best away victory in memory in terms of all-round quality, it’s time to reflect on the short medium & long term prospects for our team.

We arrive in the happiest place an Ulster team has been for many years. We bestride the Rabo Pro12 looking odds on a home semi-finalist, currently with a 9 point lead and importantly a 12 point lead over the most likely team to make a run at us, Leinster.

Perhaps even more impressive is the Heineken Cup position, leading our now traditional pool, Pool 4 by 6 points at the halfway stage. What makes both these achievements even more impressive is that in both competitions they have done the hard work to get into these positions with more away wins than home.
13 wins with 8 away from home is outstanding, most teams don’t win 8 away games in a season. We have gone through some injuries as all teams do and more international call ups than for many many years.

Many looked at the December fixture list and though we were bound to fall somewhere along the line, well two more away games done & dusted at Scarlets & Saints and now I’m pretty sure that many are beginning to think, wait a minute, big beasts are back & gelled straightaway, all things are possible.

The benefits that come along when you are now unquestionably one of Europe’s biggest teams are many and varied. Ulster are about to see their labours bear fruit.

Whilst next Saturday Ulster will have another contest with Saints, Leinster will be fighting for their Heineken Cup survival for if Clermont win as they have threatened twice previously in Dublin. Ulster undoubtedly need to do all the hard work again but they are huge favourites to win, whether with a TBP or not the win looks highly likely. Leinster after today’s slugging match on a heavy pitch will have to completely empty their tank to stay in the tournament.

As a result it is highly unlikely that Leinster will arrive at full strength the following weekend for what I have maintained all season is the game above all that we must win to open the path to silverware. Having had their enormous confrontations with Clermont they will be in need of regrouping assuming their HC hopes have not perished.

For Ulster it’s a simpler matter. In these back to back confrontations it is far from uncommon for a team to turnaround a big defeat, thing is its almost unheard of when you have been trounced at home and have to take it to a team who have kicked your ass on your own lawn. It’s like a guest coming into your house and taking your favourite chair & the TV remote and putting X factor on when there is a big match on – you’re not going to let that happen.

I haven’t been as confident in years that we will beat Leinster, our form alone indicates that we are in a much happier place but crucially, though we have had our own injury problems, theirs including BOD & Kearney amongst others are seriously hampering them and they are not finding tries easy to come by in big games.

Next up after that is a trip to Thomond, well tough that will be but we know we can win there & like Leinster they are a team finding tries hard to come by at present in the big games.

Maybe December, rather than daunting and pulling us down, will be the month that made Ulster.

January will bring new challenges but then again we are about to benefit from all those away games. Six of our next 8 games are at home and my money says we will but further distance between ourselves and our competitors before February, when the 6N’s will throw up Ireland calls on our talent.

So then, what about those prospects, Mr Short, Mr Medium & our old friend Mr Long.

Shorty could hardly look in ruder good health, a few storms weathered and but the good ship Ulster sails merrily along with a steady hand or two available for the tiller. In the short term, the next couple of months I see little but good things ahead. The unbeaten record may or may not go but we are well on course to achieve the targets that I suspect have been set for this season – home draws in both Rabo & HC.

Medium term, well let’s say the end of this season to put a date on it. The aim has got to be silverware, not easy to come by but that is what the target has to be, especially after the start we have made.

I look at the teams who are in our way, in our league one team looms larger than all others, the Mexicans, we simply get past them and we win. Ospreys are never to be written off and have latched onto Mexico twice in the last few years after they have been in the HC final but they are a team with problems that reach beyond the playing surface & the “Great Welsh Exodus” decamping to France and those ultra-rich clubs, a nouveau riche irritant Toulon who are trying to buy every money hunting player in the rugby world.

Still at home in the Pro12 Munster are a team in restructure, both playing staff & playing style. Never to be written off but it would be a hard sell to convince an Ulsterman that we haven’t nipped past them in the hierarchy.

Weegies, well as ever they are a hard working team whose main characteristic is making better teams look less able than normal. I know the season is long & will have twists, but they aren’t a threat when the prizes are being handed out. Scarlets are a team with many young prospects but they are vulnerable to a pack who can out-muscle them.

In the Heineken, we have seen one of the Ulsterman’s traits that irritates me enormously, our sad love of verbally tearing apart any team who we humiliate on the pitch. Ladies & Gents, I give you Castres. Hapless oafs according to many & certainly not very good was the general consensus after we dumped them at Ravenhill.

The fact is they are tucked in just behind Clermont in the Top 14, and lie in 4th, furthermore they have put away Weegies & Saints and are now the team who may challenge us in good old Pool 4.

In the wider HC the big teams appear to be Saracens who if they beat Munster next week will be strong favourites to go through but Pool 1 looks like a 1 qualifier group.

Pool 2 with both Tigers & Toulouse still expected in Swansea as well as with another match against each other also has the potential to come down to a one winner scenario with the Amlin for 2nd. Toulouse are marginal favourites but much will depend on Ospreys injury crisis & if they can’t hack it, 2 teams might squeak out of this one.

Pool 3 this looked a guaranteed two teamer with Quins & BOPB having on paper the softest HC group in years with Zebre & Connacht. Enter the might Westies to give the slow-learning Biarritz yet another lesson on how to screw up. Biarritz are now in serious trouble with a max 20 points on offer, I’d say they are gone.

Pool 5 probably the toughest pool this year with Clermont, Mexico, Scaaaaaaaaalets & the amazing over-achievers Exeter. Right now Clermont look heavy favourites and our friends from south of the border have a hell of a struggle to get out of this group with their title intact, especially as they have score only a single try in three games. If I were a betting man I’d say they are likely to be at best 8th seeds and more likely to be in the Amlin, however as was said about Munster for as long as I can remember – never write them off - that said without BOD & struggling to fill Brad Thorn’s boots they could be sliding.

Pool 6 Toulon have a gift group, they will win 5 or 6 games probably 6 & will go through more or less untested, probably as 1st seeds.

So the big dogs likely to be in our way, Saracens, Toulouse/Tigers, Quins, Clermont,Toulon. None of these are to be taken lightly of course, but at Ravenhill or the Aviva? We know we can & have beaten most and the most crucial thing in all this is making sure we get our home Q-F & hope that the semi-final draw is kind again this year, a draw at the Aviva & it’s back to Lansdowne road for a repeat of 1999.

Finally, the long term prospects. Hard to think of this without Fit C’s famed “World Domination” quote. At the time eyes were rolled and a collective “catch yerself on pal” was expressed. Well the facts are that in the sphere where we operate, “our world” comprises European rugby, so effectively WD means being a major HC player – winning it & being there or thereabouts year after year.

Well, having been at the supporters club meeting when a little flesh was put on the WD bones, we are unquestionably heading quickly in the right direction. My reservation may be that getting in the right ballpark may be easier than establishing ourselves there as a fixture. Much will depend on what happens when the current marquee players from SA & NZ leave.

However it’s still very fair to say that when Fit & Doc Dave told us they were taking a punt on buying in class they got it exactly right, we were floundering and it needed big decisions if we were not to be cut adrift from the big time. When Johann Muller was asked about the chances of winning the HC & said, “yes, I believe we have the squad to win it” nobody smiled or rolled their eyes. He has that effect, when he says something you believe him, signing Johann in particular was inspired.

That squad has developed, has restored Ulster pride and is now flourishing and looks like a hotbed of developing talent. As a club we have a lot to thank for the decisions taken a few years back. We have a coach who must wonder at his good fortune to land such a group of players & he is clearly doing all the right things. Nothing speaks more for a coach than results.

One thing is certain, we are now one of the big dogs, Friday night was a marker laid down that will have been noticed in every corner of European Rugby.

By Rooster’s grace, “The future’s bright, the future’s white, with a little bit of red & black.”



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fermain has been a member since Sat Jun 11, 2005 12:09 am. He/She has posted a total of 26 News item(s) for a total of 12290 post(s).

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