Form of overseas recruits has made Ulster a good bet to advance in Europe, writes Jim Glennon
Ulster needed to get back on track on Friday night and they did so thanks to a mightily impressive second-half performance which dismissed, with some ease, the challenge of second-placed visitors Scarlets.
Facing into what is probably their most important fortnight since their recent re-emergence on the European stage, this was a big night in Ravenhill as Ulster looked forward to next Friday's visit of Glasgow Warriors. A bonus-point home win will put them in a near-unassailable position. It would be a major upset were the Scots to successfully raid Ravenhill, and the trip to Castres Olympique on the following Saturday will be the pool's defining game.
As it stands, Warriors are the only team without hope of progressing and Northampton's chances are little more than of the mathematical variety.
Ulster therefore will be looking for a bonus-point victory and their home advantage should ensure that they achieve their target. Regardless of the outcome, however, Castres need to win at Northampton to ensure they're still in contention for pool honours when Ulster come calling on Saturday week; their failure to do so, coupled with an Ulster win, even without the bonus, will all but guarantee an Irish presence in the quarter-final.
The northerners will be relieved to be back in the groove after an erratic December – and despite picking up a few worrying injuries. Skipper Johann Muller hasn't played since being injured at Northampton in early December, and is highly unlikely to take any part on-field for another couple of weeks at least.
His absence dilutes considerably the overall effort and Ulster fans will be concerned to hear that the injury which forced his second- row partner Dan Tuohy from the field on Friday night is a recurrence of the calf damage which sidelined him recently. He is rated by coach Mark Anscombe as no better than 50-50 to face Glasgow and the absence of both front-rank second-rowers would be a serious blow in Castres.
Having said that, there were many positives to be drawn from Friday's demolition of Scarlets. Foremost among them, for me at least, was the masterful display from scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar.
I was critical of his contribution when he first arrived from South Africa. He was slow to settle in to his surroundings and his play fell short of his billing, in both senses of the word.
Since his return from the 2011 World Cup, though, he has become the fulcrum of this team, and it's no coincidence that the province's re-emergence can be traced back to that particular time. He is the complete article – a world-class scrumhalf, a place-kicker of the highest order, and a natural leader too.
Especially relevant for Ulster currently, he is a master of the art of game-management and his half-back partner, the rapidly-developing 21-year-old Paddy Jackson, is visibly benefiting from his experience. For my money, the Springbok ranks with Rocky Elsom, Brad Thorn and Jim Williams as one of the best signings made by an Irish province, and might well shade it as best of them all by dint of his long-term legacy of influence on the culture in which his young colleagues are learning their trade.
In addition to the South Africans Pienaar and Muller, the New Zealanders, Jarrod Payne at fullback, tighthead prop John Afoa and back- rower Nick Williams, are key players also. Afoa's contribution to the improvement in Ulster's scrummaging has been striking, not
least in the re-invigoration of Tom Court. The loosehead is currently playing the best rugby of his career – a remarkable achievement in the light of his traumatic annihilation at the hands of the English scrum in Twickenham last March.
Williams is another who is currently at the very top of his game. Having seriously underperformed with Munster, his recruitment last summer was looked on with a mixture of cynicism and bemusement. His critics have been well and truly silenced though by a succession of outstanding displays of ball-carrying and general physicality which have made him a big favourite at Ravenhill.
This team will see victory in Castres as an important staging-post in their development. With Munster and Leinster both struggling to make the knockout phase, Ulster clearly represent the best chance of maintaining Irish interest in this season's competition.