Head coach Dan McFarland said Ulster’s transformation in the past 12 months has come down to the resolve of the players wanting to improve and progress.
On Saturday evening Ulster will face Connacht at Kingspan Stadium in the semi-final qualifier of the Guinness PRO14 Final series.
Having missed out on the knockout stages of the Championship last year, Ulster faced a do or die game against Ospreys almost a year ago to secure their place in the European Champions Cup.
This season they surpassed all expectations by reaching the quarter-finals of Europe before narrowly losing to Leinster in Dublin 21-18.
Backing up that European progress, Ulster finished second in Conference B of the PRO14 to secure their place in the Final series.
McFarland took over as head coach just as the season kicked-off and his approach has certainly helped turn things around.
At Tuesday’s weekly pre-match media briefing, McFarland insisted the resolve of the players had helped bring the change.
“I think there were hard times last year, they stuck together as a unit and they learned from that they came through, they said we just want to be the best we can be,” said McFarland.
“For me coming in, it’s a question of harnessing that and pointing them in the right direction and really getting it down to the things that make it important to be part of a club at from base level which for us was fighting for every inch.
“We said that that was going to be the thing that we put out on the field.
“If you came to the Kingspan, I said ‘what am I going to see?’
“That had to be the first thing win lose or draw, whether we play well or we don’t play well in terms of our technical prowess and all the little bits around that; whatever we did we had to pout that on the field.
“And I’d say there weren’t many instances when we didn’t do that and when you look back at the season and you think of moments that we needed to draw on reserves and resilience and that fight.
“The first two games of the season (for example) when we fought back and beat Edinburgh and we beat Scarlets and both of those happened in the last minutes of the game.
“We went away to the Cheetahs, in a situation where we were asked to play at altitude, five days after we played the Kings in a game that ended 39-all.
“We went into that last play when they scored....when we scored our penultimate try as we were kicking the conversion, we had five players down injured, two medics and yet they came back off the kick-off, scored and then while we were under the posts we had one play left.
“Rob Herring was literally on one leg, he had to hop and we went back to the half way line, retained the kickoff, went through a number of phases where 13 players of those 15 touched the ball before we scored the equalising try, the only people who didn’t touch the ball were Angus Curtis, who made about 100 rucks from side to side and Rob who could hardly walk. He made a pretty crucial ruck in the middle of that.
“To me I looked at that, it was just an amazing try that earned us an extra point.
“Same as the Dragons, 30-31 phases to score a try with 13 men, that was pretty amazing as well.
“There were a number of instances like that throughout the year.
“Ultimately, squeezing those points out is where we are.
“We have a points deficit plus 16 I think, we’ve won 13 games. I know a lot of that’s accounted for by Munster beating us comfortably, Leinster away beat us comfortably, still we haven’t been spanking teams this year,” he added.