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Standing on the brink

by UAFC Editor on Sat Aug 31, 2013 12:24 pm
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Standing on the brink – glory at last or no cigar?

So a new season is about to get underway and expectations can never have been higher that a first trophy since the Magners League success of 2006 may well be on its way.

Heineken Cup or Pro12? Of course we would take either but what are the prospects. We would all take either one of course but what are the chances of grabbing either?

No significant signings have been made to add to our strength over the summer but this time, that has to be regarded as a good thing. We have all our NIQs in place so no bedding in time, all are well aware of how we play and what their roles are. Ideal for a highly important season.

We have some guys unfit going into the season but mostly the infirm are making their way back. The Lions tour & Irish trip across the pond have resulted in players being “managed” - don’t you hate that term for “access denied”?

This is unquestionably Ulster’s strongest pool of players, Doctor Dave said so last season and with many of the newcomers now older & wiser from a campaign where our resources were tested in so many ways, they must be in a better place still.

Before moving onto our prospects for the coming campaign it is always useful to reflect on where we have come from.

It’s no secret that Ulster were a mess four short years ago coming off the back of a record of final league positions of 9th, 8th, 8th the three season Brian McLaughlin era was one of year on year improvement & Mark Anscombe continued the improvement last time by topping the league, reaching a second final in two years but sadly, having conceded home advantage to Leinster, no sliver pot.

Harsher elements amongst UAFC have pointed to last season as a “failure” but that is a black and white view of the world not accepting any splashes of other colours never mind a few or even 50 shades of grey.

In reality 2012/13 was a season of very mixed emotions. The dreadful shock of the death of Nevin, Noel & Graham Spence was a huge tragedy for one family to cope with but also rattled Ulster Rugby to its foundations. The response of the local, farming & rugby communities to the Spence family was fulsome and the response of the Ulster squad just as magnificent, on and off the pitch. That the new shiny Ravenhill will have, The Nevin Spence Centre, is a fitting tribute to the young man who had so much to give.

Ulster played with NS on their shirts for the season and the initial response was almost overwhelming as Ulster marched from win to win, many games won by large margins & with superbly attractive rugby. No settling in time for Mark Anscombe, Ulster were flying, sweeping all opposition aside.

The season had started with an average display against a traditionally dour Glasgow team, who later were to prove a surprise package playing some excellent rugby & ending as top try scorers in the League. An ordinary performance against Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium was turned around after Maak had brought on the cavalry to rescue the game with an emphatic performance in the last 25 minutes when trailing 13-3, enter Trimble, Jackson, Ferris and most tellingly Court & Afoa came on to destroy the Ospreys front row.

If that was an immense boost to confidence and the following week another hard fought win over Munster at Ravenhill was achieved, despite what appeared the best efforts of Frenchie Rolland to set up a winner for ROG that thankfully never materialised with some great disciplined defence under intense pressure.

No sooner had the celebrations of a 3 from 3 start begun to settle when the shattering news of the Spence family tragedy happened.

Two weeks later after Ulster had said goodbye in style to Nevin & his brother & father with a dignified ceremony of remembrance at Ravenhill it was back to league action.

Question was how they would respond, were they shattered or would they use it to dig in and respect Nev’s memory in the way everyone wanted. At Cardiff it was a very shaky first 10 minutes, the kick off was knocked on and nothing seemed to be going well.

Then we got the answer we were all hoping for, a display of attacking rugby yielding 8 tries and overwhelming Cardiff in a game that was far from perfect but the perfect result.

Game after game rolled on with few concerns as Ulster set a record number of consecutive wins, 13 in all. Most were pretty handsome wins but two in Italy during the Autumn Internationals, were close scrapes with Ulster getting out of jail with a big vote of thanks to the now departed Niall O’Connor for showing bottle few were convinced he possessed.

The 13th win was particularly satisfying, away in the Heineken Cup to Northampton. Not just a win but a 4 try bonus point win in a performance in which Ulster’s taking of opportunities was almost flawless for they had not absolutely dominated the game as the score line of 5-25 suggests, other than where it really matters, on the scoreboard.

That result started dreamers dreaming of an unbeatable run & potentially sweeping up the trophies come May but a hurdle was about to trip them. Unfortunately, Ulster lost skipper Johann Muller to one of four serious injuries that he suffered during the season, and it proved significant.

In the return fixture just 8 days later, Saints came calling at Ravenhill and took away the winning record by a single point. Ulster were 10 -0 down after 20 minutes and the entire performance in Johann’s absence looked surprisingly hesitant, lacklustre & sadly, tame. It is easy to point to over-confidence in the wake of the comfortable win away but it was as flat a performance as could be envisaged after the run of wins.

At the very start of the 2nd half Ulster had brought themselves within a point and it appeared they would pull the victory out of the hat but chances were few as Saints fought for every ball. Late in the game Ulster broke out and a try looked possible when the ball reached Tommy Bowe but as he contested the loose ball his foot stuck in the turf & twisted. Play broke down with a kickable penalty wide out to Ulster.

It took a full 6 minutes for the medics to treat and stretcher Tommy from the field. All this time, with 3 minutes on the clock Ruan stewed, tightened up and faced a seemingly interminable wait on a cold night before sadly slipping the attempted winner wide of the posts.

The last 38 minutes were scoreless & the winning record was gone but there was still everything to play for, Ulster were still unbeaten in the league and topped their Heineken pool comfortably despite the home defeat.

With injuries beginning to pile up with not only Tommy Bowe’s long term injury but also Dan Tuohy who with Johann already out started a 2nd row crisis.
The fates appeared to be testing Ulster’s resolve with Leinster due up next again at Ravenhill, the team who had destroyed Ulster’s Heineken Cup dream at Twickenham the previous May and who were the team amongst all teams that Ulster had struggled to beat for several seasons.

Despite a good start, Ulster found themselves trailing 6-0 after 20 minutes but edged their way back into the game and a penalty try not long before the half-time whistle gave a 13-9 lead at the break. My abiding memory of that penalty try is two-fold. Firstly a quick decision to go under the posts from Ulster’s reffing nemesis , George Clancy, but more impressively Robbie Diack’s exultant leap into the air at the award having helped John Afoa grind Cian Healy into the turf to win the award.

The second half was all Ulster and 27-19 was flattering to Leinster as they scored a late consolation 7 pointer.

Faced with Munster away 8 days later, Ulster sent a much weakened team to Limerick & lost their first Pro-12 game of the season. Wins were to follow with
a 47-17 slaughter of Scarlets, a convincing HC win at home to Glasgow and then an historic moment when in an otherwise forgettable match, Ulster achieved their first ever competitive win in France beating Castres 9-8 in a game as dull as ditch water.

The 1st win in France was coupled with a 1st ever HC pool win but ominously 5 wins from 6 was not enough to get a home quarter-final, something that would bite Ulster on the bum before long.

The injury crisis was biting deep at this stage, several very serious injuries amongst them and Ulster faced team selection at this part of the season with 26 players unavailable. Rumour had it that Ethel’s debut was only a matter of time.

Ospreys won at Ravenhill, another loss followed soon after at Glasgow where Ulster were their own worst enemies conceding two of the softest tries imaginable. Worse was to come with a home draw to Treviso in which Treviso scored late but missed the convertion and much worse, a shocking defeat to hapless Edinburgh who were vying with Zebre as worst team in the league.

Again with the never ending list of casualties and poor form, enter our nemesis Leinster. We went more in hope to RDS with the possibility of slipping behind them for the first time all season and the season really on the skids. To illustrate the magnitude of the task, Ulster had not won in Dublin since the previous century so could they bridge a 14 year gap.

Well, they rose to the occasion and with tries from Robbie Diack & Iain Henderson held a tenuous 15-19 lead going into the last 10 minutes & Leinster attacking in waves. In all honesty, it was a siege and with George Clancy again holding the whistle, it was a long 10 minutes, indeed it stretched to 87 minutes.

Enter young prop, Kyle McCall for Ricky Lutton who on his full debut had put in a great shift. With Leinster swarming the Ulster defence and eschewing penalty kicks they drove over the line but Clancy was perfectly placed to see young McCall magnificently get himself under the ball. As the final whistle blew a fit again Johann Muller jumped skywards in jubilation, a display of emotion that appeared a tad out of character……….. but wait, farce was about to enter the game after the final whistle.

Leo Cullen began to gurn as only handsomely challenged Leo can and amazingly Clancy agreed to refer the decision upstairs to the video ref who fortunately made the correct call & the win was confirmed. A vital win and space opened on Leinster at the top of the table.

A hugely significant win of course for though the great unwashed had not as yet found out, Ravenhill would not be deemed ready for a home league final. A league double over the team Ulster struggle most against was a confidence boost just when things appeared to be unravelling in a season that had thrown everything at Ulster.

Disappointment sadly was only a week away. Ulster went the following week to face Saracens in the HC Q-final at Twickenham. It was going to be tough with Sarries renowned for a mean defence but sadly there were too many echoes of the home defeat to Saints in December. Ulster didn’t turn up on the day. Rumours have reached your author of an abysmally amateurish approach with the Ulster setup resembling more of a family outing than a vital European match, let’s draw a veil over that one though & hope lessons have been learned.

Back to the end of the league season, Ulster finished in style with three consecutive try bonus point wins against Dragons, Connacht & Cardiff. Ulster had come through a really tricky crisis and a spell of poorish form to top the league.

Scarlets were the home semi-final opponents and they were swept aside with plenty to spare but we now knew that Ravenhill would not host the final.

There was great turnout at the final at the RDS against the old enemy but sadly though Ulster had comeback from deficits in both league matches it wasn’t quite to be, albeit Ulster dominated the closing stages having fought back from 19-6 closing to 24-18 as time ticked away.

Many questions were left to be asked. Was John Lacey up to reffing a final? Why did Robbie Diack not choose to dive into the corner for a try, seemingly there for the taking? Should Nacewa have conceded a penalty try when high tackling the Ginger Prince just yards from the line late on? Were Ulster not up to winning a big game?

An unfulfilling end to a season of great hope and promise, but yet again, cold analysis clearly showed that another season had shown improvement on the previous one. The greatest prize from season 2012/13 was that whereas the Heineken Final had been reached on the back of mainly 15 good men and true, we now had a squad of players who could and did fill the gaps in all but the fullest times of the huge injury list suffered.

And so, with last season out of the way, what are the prospects for season 2013/14.

Well, as stated early we have our four magnificent NIQs all returning plus of course our last remaining foreigner, Jared Payne, who at the end of this season becomes Paddy Payne and eligible for a green shirt. Lest anyone forget, he slightly surprisingly signed a new long term extension to his contract, the doubters have been proved wrong, and he won’t be going to NZ to see if he can become an All Black.

Of the guys who will forever remain NIQ, it is definitely the last season for John Afoa, going home to his wife & the other love in his life, The Blues, and Johannes Gysbert Muller, the man who has been the most superb signing Ulster have made, a gentleman and a great enthusiast for the Ulster cause & most importantly a man who has clearly loved his time as an Ulster player.

Both are immensely talented players, both amongst the finest on the planet.

Muller, had he not been born to clash with the era of Botha & the magnificently talented Victor Matfield, would surely have won many many more caps & probably led South Africa time & time again.

John Afoa will feel he has still much to contribute to NZ rugby on a national and Super XV basis, he remains far from a veteran prop and he has been a great servant for Ulster. The shame will always be that his wife just couldn’t settle here and he has been torn between his family & his profession. That notwithstanding he has seldom given less than 100% to Ulster.

The other two, Ruan & Fat Nick, well I for one hope that they will sign new contracts and stay with Ulster. If rumour is to be believed, both are immensely happy here and with luck neither will be leaving any time soon.

Ruan of course reeks of class, little needs to be said other than he always seems to be in the right place and his decision making is assured. Some talked of his being jaded towards the end of the season, yet he had the mental resilience to land kick after kick in the Pro-12 final, a 100% display that with some minor differences might have seen Ulster lift the trophy. The one worry is that he seems to have played all year every year since he joined Ulster, he needs to get the odd break here and there, tricky though that will be as the Springboks will again come calling in November.

Nick Williams was a revelation, I was amongst those who were distinctly underwhelmed by his signing. Doc Dave, even seemed to be wanting to protect his reputation as a signer of nothing but top class talent when he described Nick’s signing as, “very much a Mark Anscombe signing”. Doc need not have worried, Nick dominated the headlines so much that he was URSC player of the month repeatedly.

So, no major signings but with the return and hoped for return of some promising & some seasoned

Seemingly unstoppable close to the line, Nick very very quickly became a fan’s favourite in record time. When injury hit Nick as it did so many others, his absence was acutely felt.

Though no major signings have happen over the summer there is the return of young McKinney who some reckon will threaten the Ginger Prince and another returnee is David McIlwaine. A second opportunity for them to make a mark at Ulster as indeed it is for young Porter on his 6 month contract.

Qualifying almost as returnees are those who have been long term injury victims, these include young Farrell, Sean Doyle, Paddy McAllister, Roger Wilson who played so little last season, Tommy Bowe, another who was lost to us for much of the season.

In the longer term we hope that Paddy Wallace will come back to show his undoubted class & most tantalising of all, Stevie Ferris who be all hope against hope can make the recovery that Ulster & Ireland have given him extra time to achieve.

I make no predictions for which nipper will be the next Iain Henderson or Stuart Olding both of whom have rocketed to international status. We have loads if potential players to mesh with our undoubted large core of superbly talented players.

The season is full of promise, all will be revealed in due course, a trophy would copper fasten Ulster’s growing status as one of the big European clubs.


Predictions are for fools (or the UAFC Predictions Competition) but one thing is certain, under McGlocks & Maak, with Doc Dave & Fit in the background, mostly, Ulster have become an exciting team to follow. Competitive in the Heineken, clearly established as one of the major Pro-12 teams and with an attractive brand of rugby as our default setting things are never dull and we can expect another rollercoaster this season.

So final words of inspiration to the denizens of UAFC?

Were I a more intelligent man I would seek out something truly inspirational from a heavy hitter, maybe a Martin Luther King speech, perhaps something from Madiba. Maybe a bullish quotation from Churchill.

But no, not for me. When I need inspiration I turn to The Boss. UAFC is a fine forum which discerning fans from all over Ireland, our ex-pats, not to mention our Saintly & Tigerish friends & the odd Weegie & Embra fan, even a Welshman or two.

It is a riot of opinions, some highly diverse, conflict not unknown but with a love of rugby & particularly Ulster Rugby to the forefront.

With that mix, The Boss is perfect for inspiration and his song “Land of Hope & Dreams” provide these selected lines:

Well, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls

I said, this train carries broken-hearted
This train, thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings thrown
This train, all aboard

Come on this train
People get ready
You don't need no ticket
All you gotta do is
Just get onboard

So friends, grab you’re your ticket & your suitcase & jump on board the UAFC Express for another year of hopes & dreams of a successful season.

One thing before I go. A word to the wise, The Boss can get a bit carried away, sure, you don’t need a ticket to hop on board UAFC ………………….. but don’t forget your ticket on match nights.

:red: :fleg:



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UAFC Editor has been a member since Thu May 03, 2012 8:02 am. He/She has posted a total of 18 News item(s) for a total of 27 post(s).

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