Sean Farrell reports from Kingspan Stadium
A FINAL MATCH of the season will always bring about the odd emotional farewell and Ulster had departing legends waving goodbye after today’s Champions Cup play-off win over Ospreys.
Sadly, of the half dozen players imminently exiting the Kingspan Stadium, only Robbie Diack was able to walk off the field on his own terms after aiding one last shove to put a glossy finish on the season.
The Ulster crowd, though depleted, were acutely aware of the significance for the players involved. They rose to acclaim the stalwart prop Callum Black as he was helped off injured midway through the first half and Diack was moved by the ovation he received late in the second period.
Club legends Andrew Trimble, Paul Marshall and Tommy Bowe, plus Charles Piutau (injured in the warm-up) had to be content with a post-match valediction.
Despite the crammed exit pathway, this turned out to be a day of looking forward for Ulster, rather than harking back on great deeds past.
Successfully taking a place in the Champions Cup brings the northern province back to the stage they and their fans expect to perform on. The big competition means big games, big crowds and potential ramifications for recruitment.
The off-Broadway Challenge Cup was a deeply unpalatable prospect for a club who badly need to move on and put this season behind them.
Though there were more than glimmers of the potential Ulster possess under Les Kiss, the consistency issue dogged them through to January. Under Jono Gibbes and aided by the return of Rory Best from Six Nations duty, they managed to find a rhythm late in the season just when all hope of Champions Cup rugby looked lost. Where once it looked likely that they would lose out to Benetton in pursuit of this fixture, today bore the fruit of those exertions.
Though the 35-17 win over Ospreys wasn’t quite as comprehensive as the scoreline would suggest, it featured important evidence that this team is capable of functioning under pressure in big games.
The hosts rode out four early injury blows (two either side of kick-off) and a 7-0 deficit. The visitors were put under suffocating defensive pressure and Ulster, guided by the excellent John Cooney, built their way back into a contest and then into firm control of it.
This season has been a steep learning curve for everyone connected with the province, but young talents like Nick Timoney, Matty Rea, Johnny McPhillips and Tom O’Toole will be all the stronger for it next season.
Dan McFarland will come in as head coach (hopefully sooner rather than later) Jordi Murphy arrives in the form of his life with at least a Champions Cup medal in his back pocket, Marty Moore bolsters the front row and an out-half will come to alleviate some of the pressure on McPhillips.
Put the new additions alongside the return of Marcell Coetzee, the outrageous talent of Jacob Stockdale and Iain Henderson and the class Cooney and there are suddenly numerous reasons for Ulster fans to get excited about the year ahead.
Because the year just past has certainly been one to quickly forget.