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Lay of the land suits Ulster if they can challenge on two fronts

There are big questions around all four provinces approaching the restarted season, we begin addressing those with the northern province.

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“A THING THAT preyed, living on the things that lived, unaided, alone, by virtue of his own strength and prowess, surviving triumphantly in a hostile environment where only the strong survive.”

That was the philosophy shaping Ulster’s attitude last year (and still, though it takes repeat reminders, this season) Jack London’s Call of the Wild; a text delved into in order to underline the the ‘fight for every inch’ mantra of Dan McFarland’s first season.

The two months ahead will help us answer the province’s big question have they evolved into more than a ‘town dog’?

Before the pandemic and lockdown came to turn a lot of us in to house cats, Ulster’s doggedness was serving them very well indeed. The cancellation of their trip to Treviso was called a 0-0 draw, the book-end to a 12-match run in which they won nine and only lost away to Leinster, Clermont and… well, Ospreys.

They weren’t to know it at the time but their last act on the field, grinding out a win over the Cheetahs, has left the northern province in a very strong position approaching the Pro14 restart.

Nobody has benefited from the pandemic, but the nine-point lead Ulster hold over third-place Glasgow Warriors looks a far more comfortable cushion ahead of the Aviva inter-pro weekends than it did in February.

Then, clashes against Conference B pace-setters Edinburgh and two meetings with the Warriors were ahead. Those tough fixtures have sensibly been cast wayside due to Covid.

So, in all likelihood, McFarland’s men won’t need to have all guns blazing from the get-go. Indeed, a team so starved of silverware will be forgiven for training their sights further down the track.

How they are primed for 19 September will likely define this campaign. But can Ulster get their teeth into both tournaments? To do so they will need a squad to stand up to the rigours of knock-out rugby on three or even four straight weekends.

After such a long hiatus, every team will attempt to keep a close eye on injuries as players return to action. Ulster’s squad certainly hasn’t been weakened over the summer months. Though it was a shame to see 2019 Ireland U20 star Angus Kernohan set off for England, the squad’s net experience went up with the addition of Alby Matthewson and Ian Madigan.

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ian-madigan Source: UlsterRugby/Robyn McMurray/INPHO

On paper, the new men in would make a nicely-balanced second-choice half-back pairing as Billy Burns has stockpiled credit during his time in Belfast. If John Cooney can be 2019 John Cooney again and Marcell Coetzee, Iain Henderson and Will Addison can be kept fit then they will be a very tough nut to crack for anyone.

Momentum is the oddest of qualities to have in your favour. It only really exists if we all agree it does and even then it is difficult to define. But, like pornography, we know it when we see it.

Cooney was undoubtedly surfing a wave of brilliant form in the year leading up to sport’s global shutdown. Every player will have a question mark over how they’ll begin any season, but Cooney was so imperious and influential in Ulster’s march through the European pool phase that there must be some external anxiety around how the star 9 can carry his form across a six-month gap.

john-cooney-argues-for-a-decision Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

If it’s down to momentum, then it must have been slowed by the Six Nations when he had to row in behind Conor Murray at international level again. Maybe a hard reset was precisely what he needed.

Cooney will be aided by the presence of Matthewson, an experienced and brilliantly talented half-back who will be able to bring a change of pace to Ulster’s attack when Cooney is not on the field.

If the crossing out of fixtures can be taken as a benefit to Ulster, in a year of such uncertainty most will agree that the prospect of behind-closed-doors matches must benefit away teams. Stade Toulousain for a Champions Cup quarter-final certainly feels less daunting if the stands will be empty.

Though the Top14′s 2019/20 season was cancelled outright, Toulouse won’t be going into the European last eight cold. They open the new domestic season away to Clermont and host Lyon eight days before Ulster go to France – the same day as the scheduled Pro14 final.

With the business end of the season crammed into five weeks from restart to European semis, Ulster must have noses in the air for a trophy hunt. A glance at the other teams in their position might throw anyone off backing them, but Ulster will be content as long as they’re a dog in a fight.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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