Jim Glennon: Resurgent Ulster ready to end long wait for silverware
New-look Northerners defying naysayers as they make light of upheaval
It is difficult to overstate just how impressive Ulster were last weekend in putting Leinster to the sword. Apart from the opening 10 minutes, when Leinster displayed real purpose, the home side controlled proceedings with some comfort.
It is interesting to turn the clock back 12 months to their home quarter-final loss to Saracens in the Heineken Cup, and yet another in what seemed to be an interminable string of defeats by Leinster. The end of an era appeared to be at hand, with many of the view that the team was in as much need of reconstruction as the stadium.
A changing of the guard duly ensued. Props Tom Court and John Afoa left for the Premiership; South African anchorman Johann Muller returned home; Stephen Ferris' body finally lost its war with injury; and coach Marc Anscombe was moved on. But the news of David Humphreys' surprise move to Gloucester appeared to rock the players, and indeed the entire operation, to the core. The ensuing period of uncertainty was a difficult time, with Les Kiss taking over on an interim basis before Neil Doak was installed as permanent head coach.
Two wins from six in this season's European pool exacerbated the sense of unease, and the demolition job done on them in the Stade Felix Mayol by Toulon appeared to confirm the worst fears.
However, a 26-7 win over Leicester the following Saturday evening at home was a major show of strength. Since then, they have won six of their last seven Pro12 outings. That one defeat, in Rodney Parade, appears now to have been a blip as their form-line's upward curve has continued unabated otherwise.
Ulster recruited well in South African forwards Wiehahn Herbst and Franco van der Merwe - both of whom go about their business in an understated, effective and efficient manner akin to that of their retired compatriot Muller.
A player of Ferris' calibre is close to irreplaceable, but the Ulster Academy has produced a gem in Iain Henderson. His development since bursting on to the scene a couple of seasons ago for the Ireland under 20s and scoring a try in Thomond Park in one of his early senior appearances for Ulster, has been one of the most positive trends in Irish rugby.
Against a strong Leinster back-row last week, the youngster demonstrated his full repertoire - abrasive and aggressive defence, strong carrying, a more than useful lineout option, wonderful athleticism and running angles in the wider channels. Just how good he can become is impossible to say, but hopefully he will be luckier with injuries than Ferris.
Doak's team are third in the Pro12 table. The final two games of their regular season are at home to Munster on Saturday, followed with a trip to Scotstoun seven days later. At Kingspan and on recent form, Ulster will be the favourites to beat Munster, thereby bringing within touching distance that all-important home semi-final. Having come close in both Pro12 and Europe on many occasions in recent years, the morale boost from finally winning a trophy would be impossible to quantify.
On and off the pitch, it is all happening for the province. The CEO, Shane Logan, seems to be doing an excellent job, having overseen the stadium redevelopment and the sale of naming rights to Kingspan, in addition, apparently, to securing external private funding to fund the expansion and the salaries of some of the high-profile players.
The reconstructed stadium has quickly established itself as probably the best and most atmospheric in the Pro12, and it provides a wonderful arena in which to play or watch a match. The arrival after the World Cup of Kiss as director of rugby to work with an indigenous Ulster coaching team, the recruitment of former player Bryn Cunningham as manager, and the high-profile and big-money signing of All Black Charles Piutau (with others apparently likely to follow) all augur well for the future too.
The schedule of fixtures for the Pro12 run-in guarantees the toughest of battles for those coveted home semi-finals, and Glasgow, Ospreys and particularly Munster will not yield easily. Ulster, however, have the all-important factor of recent momentum in their favour, and the month of May could well prove to be, in the words of the song, a very merry one indeed.
Sunday Indo Sport