Ulster's time is coming after operation transformation
Pro12 finalists following Cheika's Leinster model in steady ascent to game's top table, writes Jim Glennon
Such has been the extent of the renaissance at Ravenhill that Ulster's results under the troika of director of rugby David Humphreys, coach Mark Anscombe and skipper Johann Muller have assumed a new normality.
Their ground-breaking early-season run of 16 unbeaten games, including pre-season, only came to a somewhat self-inflicted halt in mid-December at the hands of the Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup but it had been quite a remarkable sequence, including the win at Northampton the previous week, one of the standout performances of the entire season, by any team.
Fast forward a couple of months to the Six Nations and with Ireland in the midst of an unprecedented run of injuries, the extent of Ulster's overall advancement in recent seasons, and of their academy in particular, was highlighted by the influx of several relatively low-profile northern players into the national squad, many of whom now look likely to be there for the long run.
It was during this period of unanticipated international call-ups, combined with another run of injuries within their own set-up, that the strength in depth of the squad was really put through the grinder, as they lost four of their six Pro12 games during the Six Nations period.
It was by no means coincidental either that their emergence from this trough was by way of an extremely hard-fought win away to the old enemy Leinster, having defended for their lives to close out the game. Achieving the home-and-away win double over the European champions in the same season meant a lot, as evidenced by the celebrations of their players, and Muller in particular, at the final whistle.
They will relish their opportunity at the RDS on Saturday, for their 'home' final of the Pro12 League, as the builders continue with the transformation of the Ravenhill stadium.
Notwithstanding the disappointment of their trip to Twickenham the following weekend when they simply failed to perform against Saracens, the lessons of the RDS will have been taken on board and, since that moment, focus will have been firmly and exclusively fixed on the remaining silverware up for grabs.
In parallel with the progress and output of their academy system, the recruitment of players into the province has, if anything, been even more impressive. Since Humphreys took over the running of the show, it is difficult to pinpoint a signing which has been anything less than impressive. Key areas of the team have been identified, and personnel with the desired skills and traits have been sourced and recruited. Muller, John Afoa, Nick Williams, Ruan Pienaar and Jared Payne have all been big hits on and off the field. The signing of Williams in particular raised more than a few eyebrows following a less than impressive stint with Munster, when he became as familiar with the demands of All-Ireland League rugby as with those of the Celtic League. A far cry indeed from the current poster-boy of the Ravenhill masses and the recipient of this season's Players' Player of the Year awards from both IRUPA and the Pro12 League.
Add in the likes of the returning Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson and it's reasonable to suggest that Ulster have been a step ahead of the other provinces in providing a potent blend with young players of the quality of Stuart Olding and Iain Henderson emerging from the academy, a blend that seems to have successfully struck that elusive balance between getting results on the one hand and, on the other, developing players.
While Muller captains the side with great authority and distinction from the second-row, the heartbeat of the team is hooker Rory Best. He and Afoa have made the scrum a major weapon in the Ulster armoury.
Their overall forward play is impressive too but the scrum is worthy of specific mention in that its deployment as a viable weapon of attack is a rarity in Irish rugby. Admittedly, Afoa is an All Black and World Cup winner at tighthead so some dominance from him would be expected, but the consistently destructive scrummaging of Tom Court at loosehead has been a feature too, and should be recognised as such.
The transformation overseen by Humphreys at Ravenhill – of the structures, the squad and, most recently, the stadium – has been massive. Ruthless when required, the focus is single-minded. There's more than a slight similarity between their growth process and that of Leinster under Michael Cheika, with the focus on winning a trophy, any trophy, and kicking on from there.
Next week's final promises to be a great contest. Leinster have ghosts to banish following losses at this stage in recent years to Munster and the Ospreys (twice), not to mention losing to Ulster twice already this season. At this remove I wouldn't like to call it but there's one thing of which we can be assured – win or lose next weekend, Ulster's time is coming.