AT FULL TIME last Friday night in Ravenhill, there was an overriding sense of disappointment, as if the New Year’s celebrations had ended with a damp squib.
That such emotion should come after a convincing 27 – 16 win to sustain the only unbeaten run in the Heineken Cup speaks volumes about how far Ulster have come.
“I remember when I was young,” says Luke Marshall, who it should be remembered is not very old, “watching Ulster: any away games, you didn’t really think they had a chance. Now the confidence has definitely changed a lot.”
The cold depths of Ulster’s desperate winter 2008. ©INPHO/PRESSEYE/Matt Mackey
Consider where the province sat this time six years ago: Ulster turned into 2008 having lost back-to-back Heineken Cup ties with Ospreys and shipped 29 points without reply in the Christmas inter-pro at the RDS. They were bottom of the Celtic League. They had never won in England, never won in France.
These days, such trips hold no such fear. This squad will head for Leicester and Welford Road confident of completing a clean sweep in Pool 5 to assure them of top seeding in their Heineken Cup quarter-final.
The manner in which Ravenhill has been torn down and rebuilt simply mirrors the mindset within the home dressing room.
Where did it all go right? Well, most who have witnessed the revolution first hand will agree on one thing; there was no Big Bang, no one catalyst that breathed the new life in. The revival was down to a slow set of incremental changes, but they’ve taken hold mighty fast.
“It’s hard to put your finger on one incident or one time,” says centre Darren Cave.
“There’s been a succession of coaches and each one that came in has built on the last one. I felt that when Matt Williams took over he basically started from scratch and he helped in certain ways. Then Brian McLaughlin took it to the next level and Mark Anscombe has taken it to the next level again.”
The 26-year-old says that some shrewd foreign signings have been a key component, and it’s true that the impact of BJ Botha, Pedrie Wannenburg, Johann Muller and latterly Ruan Pienaar and John Afoa can be undeniable. However, the centre adds that the experienced worldly-wise heads were allowed act as pillars while indigenous talents such as himself sprouted.
“There’s a core group of players that have been around a long time now. I think last year there were six or seven players who got their 100th cap for the province. There’s a third of your team that have gone from, in ’08, being a rookie who is trying their best but not contributing, to five years later being a centurion and a much better player.”
There is little sign of that homegrown talent disappearing either. The secret of the Ulster academy has been well and truly out of the bag since the Aviva Stadium’s grand opening had them running with the best Leinster could offer at the same age.
“There are guys coming in producing big performances, but also maybe just tweaking our culture a little bit,” says Andrew Trimble in relation to the influence or foreign imports, “but young guys are coming through and tweaking it just as much if not more.
“Iain Henderon, Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding; all these guys come in and they just put their imprint on our culture and the environment in the squad. It’s always a beneficial thing to have the balance of the older couple of foreigners coming in to influence the younger guys coming in.
“To put your finger on [the big changes] would be very difficult because I think it’s happened over a number of years, but going away to Munster and winning the quarter-final was a big turning point and just made us realise, ‘we’re good enough to play with these sides’.
“Even now the next step up is not only are we good enough to compete, but we’re going to do a job on them. That’s a big ask, but that’s what we’re capable of.”
Even number eight Roger Wilson, who returned last season in the shadow of Tommy Bowe after four years in Northampton, could not point to one factor that differentiated the strugglers he left with the elite side he came back to. His view is that it was more of a holistic approach by all forms of management around the organisation.
“There was no less effort or anything like that from the players that went on the pitch,” Wilson says.
“Through the whole setup from the very top down; everything from people in the office staff to back room staff has completely changed. I think when you do that from the very top down that has an impact on the playing squad.
“I think if you get everything right from a business point of view then the squad improves as well. That’s the main difference for me, there’s been a huge change or the four or five years: now we’re getting regularly out of our group which is something we never managed to do.
“We’re seeing the rewards of it all, but we’ve got to a good level now and we want to push on and actually win something.”
And there lies the crux of the matter for this modern day Ulster team. For all of their forward progress and experience of knock-out rugby and finals, they only have two runners-up medals to their name.
“If anything,” says Cave, “knowing it’s the last opportunity for some players, and coming so close to winning a trophy again – we’re just more hungry for silverware a year on if that’s possible.”
“If I look back; I played in the first Ulster team to ever win in England. That’s only four years ago and we only won in France for the first time last year. It’s interesting to look back on how attitudes have changed within the teams but also within the fans and within the province.”
And within the squad too, as Luke Marshall revealed that his elders have assumed a parental ‘wasn’t like that in my day’ role just in case the newer members ever come to neglect how good a Pool decider in Welford Road or a tough quarter-final is compared to the bad old days.
“Tommy [Bowe] and Trimby were saying that us young guys have it so easy now. They were losing most weeks, like, and it was only the odd time they’d get a win. They were talking about their trips over to the Scottish Borders and all to play for one man and his dog and how it’s all so much more glamorous now.
“It’s definitely very nice to be in an Ulster team where the confidence is so high and we’re expecting to win every game now.”
That includes Saturday evening’s visit to Leicester when the worst outcome will be an away quarter-final.
In 2008 they’d have given anything for a damp squib like that, but the like of Marshall are ensuring that the culture never again slips back to become one accustomed to defeat.