Tony Ward: Fans have the right to feel conned
DESPITE their defeat to Munster on Saturday, Ulster's superb start to the season should surprise nobody. Much like the other provinces, the game in the north is built upon a very solid schools foundation and an ever-developing underage youth rugby structure too. It is far from perfect but with growing interest and the game extending ever further into Catholic schools, the future in the province is secure.
Because of my involvement with three different clubs – Garryowen, St Mary's and Greystones – there was barely a rugby ground in the nine counties that I didn't visit and, while some games may have been 'friendlies', there was always great tradition and prestige attached.
Playing Ulster at Ravenhill was a mighty ask. The supporters were passionate and vociferous and they had some outstanding players in some great teams. They enjoyed unprecedented success, with the Jimmy Davidson period in the 1980s perhaps the most successful and memorable to date.
Jimmy D had a 'Club Ulster' vision way ahead of his time and in players of the calibre of Philip Rainey, Trevor Ringland, Davy Irwin, Keith Crossan, Jimmy McCoy, Johnny McDonald, Willie Anderson, Willie Duncan, Nigel Carr, Philip Matthews, Stevie Smith and Davy Morrow had international class material with which to work.
There were great teams before, coinciding with the Mike Gibson and Jack Kyle eras, but factoring in victory over the all-conquering Grand Slam-winning Wallabies in '84, the Davidson dynasty takes some beating.
At least that is until now. On Saturday in Limerick a game was lost and a record fell. The background to that defeat is worth highlighting, for in the first half of the season what Mark Anscombe and Ulster achieved in winning 11 straight games was phenomenal and I'm not sure it has got the recognition it deserves.
Before the home and away fixtures of the Celtic League, an inter-provincial Grand Slam involved beating the other three provinces in the one season.
With professionalism and the Celtic League came home and away fixtures, thereby making six wins from six the perfect inter-provincial Grand Slam target.
But Team Ulster this season has gone so much further than that in creating a record that will be difficult to beat.
Bear in mind that those 11 straight wins included victories over all four Welsh regions on Welsh soil, plus the Italian two in Italy.
It means that from now to the Rabo Direct Pro12 play-offs they have to travel outside Ireland (to Glasgow and Edinburgh) just twice with six of their 10 remaining games at fortress Ravenhill.
All of which makes the background to last Saturday's defeat so much more disappointing. In effect, the IRFU player management policy (which applies to Munster and Leinster too) forced Anscombe's hand.
Even allowing for forthcoming Heineken Cup Rounds 5 and 6, I will take some convincing that the Ulster mentor would not have picked from a full hand and fielded a different starting 15 entirely were the national squad players available.
Of course, grabbing game-time for kids can be productive in its own right but those fans (from both sides of the border) who turned up on a horrendous December evening in Thomond were badly short-changed.
I think I speak for most when I cite the derby aspect as the most enticing element to Pro12 rugby.
I'm not sure quite how long the public will continue to support these hitherto appealing festive derbies. Certainly in Limerick on Saturday there was a feeling of being conned. What could have been a great contest and great occasion, irrespective of the weather, turned into predictable one-way fare.
Not, mind you, that Munster played particularly well, but certainly they did enough to win against a scratch, hugely inexperienced Ulster side. And if that (from the time the teams were announced on Friday) is not seen as conning the public (who would in most cases have bought their tickets long before), then I don't know what is.
I was in Belfast and Limerick, and though just eight days apart, they were different games in terms of intensity and competitive appeal.
Joe Schmidt may be struggling to retain the Heineken Cup but in terms of strength-in-depth at this point in time, Leinster still appear much further down that road than the rest.
That, however, is not the issue; the issue is about fielding the best 15 for a match and an inter-provincial series that should still matter to Irish rugby. However, much like the club game, I fear we have lost our way with the goalposts having shifted gradually and irreparably.
One thing's for sure – any hint of a repeat and fans will very soon be voting with their feet.