Wounded Ulster bid to end Leinster hoodoo
RAVENHILL was a hive of activity yesterday as work continued on the stadium's refurbishment, while an Ulster-branded team bus arrived at the stadium for the first time. Progress at work.
The foundations for the new stands behind the goals will be laid tomorrow, but in a rugby sense the club have been building for a number of years and remain on an upward curve.
Tomorrow night, they face the latest barrier to their progress – Leinster.
Over the past number of seasons, the northern province have knocked down one obstacle after another. Reaching a Heineken Cup quarter-final, then a final. Winning at Thomond Park and beating Clermont and Leicester along the way as they establish themselves as a force to strike fear into Europe's elite.
Under the stewardship of David Humphreys, brand Ulster has been building, with the influx of South Africans and New Zealanders being complemented by rising local talents like Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy and Iain Henderson. But there are still frontiers that have yet to be reached.
After their first defeat of the season to Northampton Saints, they remain in control of Pool 4, but in order to reach the quarter-finals safely, they must do something they have never done before and win in France against Castres.
That can wait, though, because there's another monkey that Mark Anscombe's team need to get off their backs and that is to beat Leinster, something they have not done since October 24, 2009 when they squeezed a 16-14 win over the Blues.
Since that date, the two teams have met seven times and Leinster have come out on top in every one. Two of those have been knockout clashes, with the European champions ending Ulster's interest in the 2010 Celtic League at the semi-final stage and then continuing the hoodoo by beating them well in last season's Heineken Cup final.
Saturday's defeat was a major blow, coming as it did after such an impressive display at Franklin's Gardens eight days earlier. And the back-to-back fixtures with Northampton have taken their toll on Anscombe's squad, with captain Johann Muller, wing Tommy Bowe and second-row Dan Tuohy all picking up injuries over the two fixtures.
Throw in the stomach bug that has laid Darren Cave, Craig Gilroy – who was to replace Bowe – and others down, and Chris Henry's lack of availability due to a family bereavement, and suddenly the chances of a famous victory seem to be receding.
The Ulster public is expectant, however. The 12,000-plus tickets sold out in a half an hour for this glamour, pre-Christmas fixture when they went on sale and, a fortnight ago, the odds of them getting what they wanted would have been very short indeed. But the injuries and disruptions have altered that perception and a glance at Ulster's bench last Saturday revealed a lack of depth that had not previously been witnessed.
Leinster, meanwhile, make the trip up the M1 a wounded animal after their back-to-back defeats at the hands of Clermont. There is a quiet determination around Belfield this week to put things right and, having won on their last two visits to Ravenhill, there is a sense that the Blues have nothing to fear.
Not that they are silly enough to say it publicly. Ulster, after all, looked unbeatable before last weekend and were showing signs of real steel before Northampton overpowered them.
Mike Ross believes both sides will be looking for a response after Ireland's worst Heineken Cup weekend. He has been impressed by Ulster this campaign and expects a reaction from them.
"I think every professional rugby player in Ireland is going into training this week pretty annoyed about how the weekend went," he said.
"It should be interesting this week. Ulster had a superb winning run brought to a halt in front of their own crowd and that hurts, that really hurts, so it will be hard to take points off them.
"They've had more time together, they've also had a new coach come in and often that adds a bump-up to your performance and every player is trying to prove themselves to a new coach. He's brought a good game plan, they've got quality players and they're executing well."
Their progress has been plain to see, but last weekend exposed a chink in their armour. It is significant that, while Munster will rest internationals against Connacht on Saturday, Anscombe will retain his front-liners and then leave them behind when his new bus makes it's way to Thomond Park next weekend.
Part of the reason behind their losing run against leinster is that Brian McLaughlin often rested front-liners for this fixture, with predictable consequences.
Even still, there are enough absentees and question marks over the squad depth to open up debate on whether Ulster are, as had been mooted after their bonus-point victory in Northampton, among the big guns heading for European glory – like Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse and Harlequins.
Certainly, their squad is being stretched to the limit and their less proven players will need to step up to defeat a wounded Leinster. Ulster want and need this win, but fate appears to be conspiring against them.
But if they manage to end their losing run against the European champions and overcome yet another barrier, it would stand them in good stead for their trip to Castres in January.