Thursday 22 February 2018

Ulster will be real force with Pienaar back to run the show

Ask any of the four provincial coaches to rank, on a scale of one to 10, the relevance of their first four Pro12 matches as preparation for European action, and I think the combined score might just be close to double figures.

Let's put it another way. At Ravenhill and Lansdowne Road last weekend, all early-season posturing came to an end.

For Connacht and Leinster there was the added advantage of their Sportsground meeting the previous weekend, but for all four provinces, the first weekend in October is the real deal.

With the meeting of Leinster and Munster getting top billing, it could easily have gone unnoticed that Ulster, while playing well within themselves, continued their best start to a season when extending their winning run to five from five.

For David Humphreys and Mark Anscombe, things are certainly looking up when they keep the opposition scoreless and score three tries.

And yet, there was a sense of disappointment that the end-product might have been even better.


Brian McLaughlin had set the bar high, and Anscombe is pushing it higher again as Ulster continue to develop into a formidable force.

Prior to professionalism, particularly under Jimmy Davidson, 'Team Ulster', as the former Ireland head coach himself so aptly named it, was a team on a mission.

Jimmy D was talking up provincial rugby as part of a cross-border and international league long before its time.

Sadly, Jimmy is no longer with us, but everything he envisaged has since come to pass, with Team Ulster building a Belfast bastion and a formidable team to compete with the best.

With a well-oiled, long-established schools machine allied to an ever-improving youth (club) system, the northern province is well positioned to move forward with supreme confidence.

Last season's second Heineken Cup final appearance was no flash in the pan.

Yes, they were well beaten by Leinster in the decider, but a big step on the road to competing consistently at this level was taken by everyone involved.

Much like Munster, currently in cultural transition under Rob Penney, there is plenty of fine-tuning and graft still to be done in passing accuracy and backline alignment/creativity for the return to competitiveness to be complete.

In a sense, like Munster again, Ulster are a work in progress and a squad on a mission. The most important short-term development will be the return of Ruan Pienaar after his nine-week Four Nations sojourn with the Springboks.

In just his second season in the province, Pienaar is in every sense the fulcrum to the side.

The welcome return of the Springbok scrum-half will almost definitely see Paul Marshall drop down to the bench. As a bundle of energy, but a more compact version, in the Eoin Reddan mould, I like what I see in the ever-alert Marshall. Along with Michael Heaney, both No 9s cannot but benefit from Pienaar's presence.

When Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble bed in as a back three (not to mention the fleet-footed Craig Gilroy in reserve) then a much-improved Ulster scoring machine will really get into gear.

The introduction of former Munster No 8 Nick Williams has already added clout and gain-line breaking momentum. And please don't focus on what he can't do (a long-ingrained Irish disease) but focus on what he can instead.

Any side facing Williams and Stephen Ferris as ball-carriers around the fringe of ruck and maul has a major problem on its hands -- thereby creating time and space elsewhere.

Anscombe is no fool, with the signing of Williams already a master-stroke. Just ask the Ravenhill faithful.

All told, it leaves our big three in pretty good nick ahead of the Heineken Cup kick-off this weekend.

Despite their youthful backline again showing massive potential on limited opportunity, Connacht will continue as underdogs.

On form and potential, it's Leinster, Ulster, Munster and the men from the west, in that order.

The English and French can moan all they want, but we're in with as good a chance as any of making it though to Lansdowne on May 18 and keeping the Heineken Cup here.

Irish Independent

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