Ulster no longer in shadow of their provincial rivals
Mark Anscombe's men have evolved into serious heavy hitters this season
Franklin's Gardens is a venue from which bonus points in victory rarely escape, and Ulster will treasure theirs not only for the crucial cushion it gives them in the context of the group but also, and almost as importantly, for its boost to the momentum of a squad capable of competing successfully at the highest level.
Ulster's performance on Friday night was of a quality that announced themselves as worthy contenders at Europe's top table.
Ulster have now gone 13 games undefeated and have progressed steadily from early season, weathering tragedy within the squad, their share of injuries and players absent on international duty. Indeed their recent away double on successive weeks in Italy during the November internationals may well be a key contributor at season's end – in more ways than one.
There's a lot of rugby to be played between now and then, but at the halfway point of the pool stages of the European competition, Mark Anscombe's team is already poised to achieve a home quarter-final draw.
Two years ago, Northampton eliminated them at the quarter-final stage with a performance based mainly on forward dominance; this time the roles were reversed, and comprehensively too. The Ulster front five comfortably had the better of the exchanges, to the extent that England flanker Tom Wood, man-of-the-match against New Zealand last week and crucial to his team's game plan, was rendered largely anonymous. He was totally outplayed by his opposite number Chris Henry. Behind a beaten pack, outhalf Ryan Lambe lived up to his reputation for flakiness and failed to bring his outside backs into the game.
Hooker Rory Best, despite some scratchy throwing to the lineout, was outstanding for Ulster, but it was Tom Court at loosehead who caught the eye most. Unfairly maligned as a result of his experience when playing out of position at substitute tighthead for Ireland against England last March, he was totally at home in his normal loosehead position against the formidable Brian Mujati.
The midfield pairing of Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave impressed too and were almost always on the front foot, particularly in defence, but it was the back three of fullback Jarred Payne and wingers Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble who did the real damage with a hat-trick of tries between them. New Zealander Payne, having spent all of last season on the injury list, is obviously enjoying his rugby and in the process is showing himself to be very much the complete footballer. His offensive kicking is a particular weapon which will inflict real damage on the most organised defences.
While nothing can be taken for granted in this competition, it's difficult to envisage Northampton reversing the result at Ravenhill next week. Ulster's evolution as a squad, exemplified by Anscombe's selection of Andrew Trimble ahead of Craig Gilroy, continues apace.
Their marquee players – Payne, scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, Best, tighthead John Afoa and skipper Johann Muller lead the way in the manner expected of professionals of their quality. Trimble, Wallace, Court and Henry are all stepping up to the plate impressively, and consistently delivering performances of a quality at or near their very best. The real bonuses, however, are Cave, outhalf Paddy Jackson, second-row Dan Tuohy, blindside flanker Iain Henderson and No 8 Roger Wilson. At the start of the season they probably would have been considered journeymen, but with potential for key roles, particularly 21-one year-old Jackson and 20-year-old Henderson. Once again, all are delivering consistently but with real bonuses in the form of the athletic Henderson and the pivotal Jackson. The latter's contribution is worthy of particular mention.
He has succeeded in putting behind him a potentially crushing personal experience against Leinster at Twickenham last May and has emerged as a calmly capable place-kicking pivot. In doing so he has solved a long-standing problem for Ulster in the outhalf position and has fully justified the trust and confidence invested in him by David Humphreys and his management team.
Ulster's bench is another area in which progress has been achieved. While not yet of the standards of Leinster, Toulouse or Clermont, effective and prudent management of a bench which includes Gilroy, Luke and Paul Marshall, Robbie Diack, and Nick Williams gives realistic options that were previously unavailable.
All in all then, a group of substance, especially when at or near full strength, as they were on Friday when Stephen Ferris and Declan Fitzpatrick were the only notable absentees. The one potential weakness, as with all sides in the modern era, is the vulnerability of their marquee players to injury. In this regard, the injury to Muller is a concern. It was no coincidence that Northampton enjoyed their best period when the South African second-row went off.
No prizes are awarded for heading a pool after three games, and I won't be in any hurry to have a bet on them to win the competition but one thing, at least, is evident at this early stage: Ulster's days in the shadows of Munster and Leinster are behind them. And as with Leinster succeeding Munster as our standard-bearers in Europe, Ulster have now positioned themselves next in line to Leinster.
We'll be a lot better informed about the relative merits of all the provinces after today's events in Clermont and next week's round of return games.
Sunday Indo Sport