RUGBY OPINION: Ulster cannot afford to miss opportunity of making huge statement of global proportions

The new Guinness PRO14 season
The new Guinness PRO14 season

Ulster will look to go from the also rans to Guinness PRO14 champions when the season kicks-off on Friday night with an attractive fixture against Toyota Cheetahs at Kingspan Stadium.

It is an historic night.

The first truly global rugby championship kicks-off with two South Africans adding a new dimension in the ‘Race to Aviva’, Dublin again the host venue for the final on May 26.

It is a new competition and a new start for Ulster with a new coaching set-up and new faces in the squad.

This is the fourth change to the format of the former Celtic League organised by Celtic Rugby - and it arguably the most exciting, even if it is perhaps experimental.

Bringing clubs from the Northern and Southern Hemisphere together is something which has been called for a long time and the clubs in the Aviva English Premiership and French Top 14 will be a little envious having dominated the domestic game for so long.

But Ulster must put aside the history of tonight in Belfast as they attempt to avoid a repeat of getting lost last season some way along the campaign.

Les Kiss’s side failed to make the knockout stages for the first time since 2012.

It was 11 years since Ulster were Celtic League champions, and since that time the competition has been known as the Magners League, RaboDirect PRO12 and Guinness PRO12.

Ulster fans have had to sit back and watch as Provincial rivals Leinster, Munster and even Connacht have lifted the trophy. Ulster were always there or thereabouts, but just could not make that final push to get silverware.

As it evolves once again in the Guinness PRO14 no better time for Ulster to make a statement and finally deliver what they have expected to do year after year after year.

Ulster charged to the summit last season, then the wheels came off. They got them back on again, but had not tightened the nuts and they spluttered to finish just inside the European Champions Cup qualification line.

Something was just not quite right. Rumours of a coaching change were circulating even before the turn of 2016 and that was finally confirmed when Allan Clarke and Neil Doak were informed they were being let go.

Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel, along with Aaron Dundon have all come in to change the direction, the approach, the play and deliver belief in the players’ that they can achieve what many of us expect.

Maybe for Kiss, who is going into his second full season with Ulster, he has been able to remove the small pebbles from his shoe, but he himself will be under pressure to ensure the squad do deliver.

Kiss told me: “I came in mid season towards the end of one season and then trying to piece together where the organisation sits in terms of how they engage with a programme (high performance, cutting edge, that sort of stuff) and I have sifted through a couple of things and I made some decisions around the edges and through the middle to move that I guess.

“We are definitely in a different platform that we are working from now. Our big focus in reality is if we are to breach that gap with one extra win, take a bonus point or two here or there or to be better than a decision which goes against you, that penalty try against Scarlets, if it is not there it is an eight point turnaround in the competition ladder, but those things happen and we have to be a better team that can handle those things, be better than those decisions and situations.

“We have had a big focus on making sure that across the management, the team and organisation that we are a stronger team, the question we asked about silverware is an end goal for every individual and team to aspire to, you should have that ambition but we are not getting distracted by that, if we are a better team every session it builds stronger resilience on a weekly basis.

“If we get that right we will end up in a position where we can possibly do something at the backend of the season.”

To that end, the outcomes of two pre-season friendlies have not filled fans with high expectations, particularly a 55-15 drubbing in Northampton last weekend. Thirteen tries conceded in eight days will not have made for great reviewing.

But friendlies have to be treated in a certain way. Ulster named a panel of 31 players to face Wasps two weeks ago and there was a lesser extended panel at Franklin Gardens last weekend - Kiss wanting to expose some of the youngsters to the big game situation and also seeing how those who will face Cheetahs tonight important game time as he considers his combinations going into the game as he does without key international stars, rested under the player welfare management programme.

In all honesty given the investment in players over the past few years and in a fantastic stadium - hailed recently by World Rugby following the hosting of the Women’s World Cup Finals day - there is no longer an expectancy for Ulster to deliver, but a need.

The flying start last season presented false hope. And while it is important to start well, it is important to remember that last season’s champions, Scarlets, lost their first three games, but did enough to stay in contention and then, as Kiss referred to, were able to do something at the back end of the championship. Scarlets because the first team to win an away semi-final (against Leinster) and then defeated Munster on home soil in Dublin!

There has, and still is, much talk about the departure of Ruan Pienaar, but it is what it is and the signing of John Cooney from Connacht to be first choice scrumhalf was a shrewd enough move, given there are few world class Irish qualified number nines out there.

I feel that Cooney would probably have displaced Kieran Marmion as first choice at Connacht last season had it not been for an injury which set him back. On the Ireland summer tour to USA and Japan he looked good and it will be no surprise to see him back in the green jersey again in November.

The important thing is not to make comparisons with Pienaar, but to allow Cooney to develop with his own game.

With the outhalf situation being what it is currently, the signing of Australian fly-half Christian Leali’ifano was a real boost for Ulster. It may only be a five-month deal, but if covers a key position and an important phase of the season in both PRO14 and Europe. He will also help Cooney’s development.

I am off no doubt that Ulster are already seeking another quality replacement when the Brumbies star’s five-month contract ends in January.

Given Ulster’s fixture line-up over the next few weeks one would expect them to be sitting well placed in Conference A. The first test against The Cheetahs is huge and the champions Scarlets visit in three weeks, but heading into the first round of Europe in October, if Les Kiss’s side are not sitting pretty there could be some uncomfortable questions to be answered.