Ferris fitness key to Ulster season
WE are at the halfway point of the season and it has been a case of so far, so acceptable for Ulster rugby.
'Good' would be stretching it a bit due to the less than convincing nature of the province's performances, but the fact Brian McLaughlin's men have managed to win six and draw one out of nine Magners League matches, as well as securing three wins from four in the Heineken Cup, deserves recognition.
However, reservations stem from the fact that Pool 4 is made up of new Italian outfit Aironi, a distinctly average Bath team performing with a notable lack of confidence and Biarritz, last season's beaten finalists, but notoriously brittle on the road, as they proved when losing in Aironi.
Essentially, Ulster's season hinges on their next European assignment at home to Biarritz. Victory there should guarantee progress to the knock-out stages for the first time since 1999 as they have Aironi in their final pool game -- albeit in Italy.
And yet, there is the suspicion, even amid the euphoria of back-to-back victories over Bath, that Ulster still have the capacity to make a complete horlicks of their qualification process, which is why there will be extra scrutiny on their lead-in matches -- starting with today's clash with Leinster in Ravenhill.
Although there are many personnel changes from the side that rampaged past French champions Clermont at Lansdowne Road, Joe Schmidt's side will be a good barometer of Ulster's ambition.
In 12 meetings with Leinster since 2004, Ulster have a single victory to their name, a 16-14 home triumph in October 2009 and have a history of going into their shell in this fixture. Under Schmidt, Leinster play a progressive brand of rugby with intelligent back play married to pace and physicality among the forwards.
Even without a clutch of frontline players, they pose a considerable threat.
The youngsters Schmidt has brought through, by way of selectorial rotation and injury-enforced necessity, have proven themselves to be more than capable of coping at this level, flanker Dominic Ryan being the prime example.
After Leinster, it is Munster in Thomond Park next weekend where Ulster will be seeking to recreate their magical 37-11 triumph of two years ago, as opposed to their rather flat display when going down 24-10 in Limerick last year.
Their final pre-Biarritz run-out comes at Ravenhill against Treviso on January 7, which may be the ideal hors d'oeuvre before the French main course against Biarritz the week after.
In many respects, Treviso represent the ideal preparation, tough enough to put Ulster to the test, limited enough to provide the home side with a timely confidence boost.
At this critical juncture, it is time for Ulster's South African stars to step up to the plate, use their experience to get heads right and their skill and nous to ensure Ulster remain at the business end of the league and qualify for the European quarter-finals.
Johann Muller has become a key leadership figure, particularly in the injury-enforced absence of club captain Rory Best, and Ulster can build their pack around the tight-five power of BJ Botha at tight-head prop and Muller in the second row.
The back-row remains a puzzle. First of all, there is Stephen Ferris' latest injury setback, which is a concern as Ulster need their best player available for the defining period of their season, while Ireland want him ready for the Six Nations in February. The Lion's inspirational qualities cannot be over-stated and if he is fit and available for the big matches with province and country, Ferris is a shoo-in in the No 6 jersey.
The presence of two more South Africans, Pedrie Wannenburg and Robbie Diack, has meant little opportunity for Chris Henry to build on the positive impression he made at No 8 on Ireland's summer tour. In 12 matches for his province this season, Henry has started at No 8 in just one.
Instead, he has been used at open-side flanker, a position where Henry is happy and able to perform, but where he is less effective. The knock-on effects have forced the hugely promising flanker Willie Faloon on to the bench or out of the squad altogether and the whole Ulster back-row affair has been damaging for Ireland coach Declan Kidney.
It would be fantastic if Ulster could negotiate their way past Biarritz with an all-Irish back-row of Ferris, Faloon and Henry, but such a selection scenario is extremely unlikely. There are also issues at half-back to examine. Ruan Pienaar has not been as influential as was hoped at scrum-half and there are those who believe Ulster would be better served if the Springbok was one position further out.
Selecting Pienaar at 10 would mean the diminutive, but talented Paul Marshall coming in at scrum-half and no room for Ian Humphreys. That is a situation Humphreys is accustomed to under McLaughlin after a rough start to the season when he was a peripheral figure, as Niall O'Connor was consistently picked ahead of him.
But Humphreys on his game, as he was at the Recreation Ground against Bath, is a wonderful footballer and when his confidence is high, brilliant off the kicking tee.
Further out the back-line, the emergence of Nevin Spence has been very encouraging, Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli are international quality wings, while Adam D'Arcy has had some good moments from full-back.
Add it all together and Ulster have the personnel and the launch pad to get where they want to go. Now, they need to find the fluidity that has been largely absent thus far, and display the focus and drive that will defeat Biarritz in three weeks' time -- eradicating their tendency to go to sleep for chunks of the game would be a good start.
This is the key point in McLaughlin's reign as coach, he knows the rewards and penalties for failure. The reality is that given the hefty investment in this season, allied to an extremely amenable European pool, there will be considerable fall-out should McLaughlin and his squad come up short.
All to play for.