Time for Ulster to finally make their overdue breakthrough
Published 02/09/2016 | 02:30
In 2014, Ulster were determined to secure some silverware for their departing captain Johann Muller but they came up just short.
Having rebuilt after the Springbok's retirement, they find themselves in a similar situation after confirming this week that Ruan Pienaar will leave at the end of the season.
The reality for Les Kiss is that he will not be able to replace the brilliant South African scrum-half like-for-like and, with the combination of new signings Charles Piutau and Marcel Coetzee and Pienaar and Franco van der Merwe along with a strong spine of Ireland internationals, they may never get a better chance.
Kiss has said that the Guinness Pro12 is the priority and a Kingspan Stadium semi-final should be a major target, but they will fancy their chances of qualifying from a tough, but even-looking European pool and they have the firepower to win games when the ground hardens.
The big concern comes in the front-row where they begin with an injury crisis and appear to lack the kind of depth they can boast behind the scrum where Kiss has an embarrassment of riches. Nick Williams is a loss and Coetzee's injury means his debut is delayed, but they look a good bet for the league and decent shot for a run in the Champions Cup.
Behind the scrum, there are few teams who can boast the options available to Kiss who has 10 Ireland internationals, an All Black and a Springbok to choose from.
At half-back, there is a big drop-off when Pienaar and Paddy Jackson are unavailable, but elsewhere there is an abundance of talented game-breakers and Piutau gives them the kind of threat not found elsewhere in the league.
Up front, the scrum is a concern given the early-season injuries and it will be interesting to see how Rodney Ah You adapts, but the lineout should continue to run well.
Williams' departure deprives the team of go-forward ball, but Iain Henderson should continue his rise and others will pick up the slack.
Kiss is a widely respected figurehead who allows his unit coaches go about their tasks away from the glare of the media limelight.
The experienced Australian has plenty of support from the highly regarded Neil Doak who implements the game-plan, while Joe Barakat and Allan Clarke had solid first seasons last year. There is plenty of know-how behind the scenes, with the detailed mind of Kiss knitting it all together.
Ulster expects, plain and simple.
The northern province have been present at the business end of the season for most of the last number of campaigns but have yet to add to the Celtic League they collected in 2006.
With Pienaar leaving, they have a cause but that hasn't been enough before.
The landmark signings of Piutau and Coetzee mean they have plenty of firepower, while their growing number of Ireland players are increasing their experience levels and they should be able to handle it.
Piutau is by far and away the best addition to any squad in the league, while Coetzee is not far behind.
Full houses and the backing of Kingspan mean that Ulster are in a strong position and they have made their mark.
Between Jared Payne, Pienaar, Stuart Olding and Piutau, few teams pack as many players who can make things happen as the northern province.
Room for growth
If Ulster can improve their consistency during the season, then they can won't need a late charge like last year and their stronger squad should ensure better mid-season results.
Verdict: Ulster should be targeting the Pro12 title and at least a visit to the European quarter-finals after making a significant investment in their squad.
They will be good to watch, but it's time they added the winning edge to their game.