Opinion: 2020 could prove to be a defining period for this Ulster squad

Ulster Head coach Dan McFarland. Credit �INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Ulster Head coach Dan McFarland. Credit �INPHO/Dan Sheridan
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The first packed Kingspan Stadium since May 2017 was rewarded by an Ulster performance of note in the Guinness PRO14 as they signed off 2019 with an impressive display in a 35-3 rout over Connacht on Friday night.

There is a real buzz around the squad at present and its infectious with the Ulster fanbase now starting to feel this period of resurgence under head coach Dan McFarland could finally end the barren silverware period and they are starting to get behind the side both on these shores and on the road.

Connacht were the last side to defeat Ulster at their Belfast home and it hurt. It appeared that hurt had been lingering since that game in October 2018 in spite of the fact Ulster avenged it in the play-offs at the end of last season.

The scoreline was as convincing as it read, Ulster scoring five tries and producing one of their best displays this season.

Since that loss to Connacht in October last year, Ulster have made Kingspan Stadium a fortress, now 18 games unbeaten in Belfast.

It is not something McFarland wants to get into too much because as soon as you talk about it, something happens to spoil it.

Over the weekend Munster saw an unbeaten 21-match home record ended when they lost a PRO14 game to Leinster 13-6.

Munster come to Belfast this Friday night and will be out to put an end to Ulster’s impressive run.

While Ulster want to be winning, both home and away, it is about the performances and McFarland wants to see continued progress being made.

This is always a time of the year for reflection and looking ahead. Although no two seasons are the same - unless you are from Leinster - 2019 will be regarded as the year of an Ulster resurgence.

A European Champions Cup quarter-final and a Guinness PRO14 semi-final were significant achievements for the new group at Kingspan.

Michael Lowry, Eric O’Sullivan and Robert Baloucoune all emerged as massively exciting prospects, and the latter two have certainly continued to deliver.

Last week we saw four more debutants, the stand out being Ethan McElroy. He was also named in the Ireland U20 extended squad which played Munster Development XV yesterday.

The fact that the Ulster Academy and sub-Academy are delivering quality talent is a tribute to the work going on there by the team headed up Kieran Campbell and Willie Anderson.

And the fact McFarland is prepared to blood the rookies in the senior squad is vital to the continued progress that Ulster have been making under his, Jared Payne, Dwayne Peel, Dan Sopher Roddy Grant and Niall Malone leadership.

Leinster have set the benchmark for all the Irish Provinces over the years - they have already used 51-52 players this season, as they did last year and the year before. Their Academy is a profitable production line.

It is not however envied by the other three Provinces, because it is unfair to make the comparison given all the resources the Irish capital province have.

But compare Ulster to Munster, you can get a much better idea of how well the Academy in the North is doing.

This time a year ago Ulster were sitting on seven wins and a draw from 11 games, for the corresponding period (which is two games less due to the World Cup) they are six wins and three losses.

In Europe Ulster are currently on four wins from four, at the same stage a year ago they were three from four.

There is no doubt reaching the European Cup quarter-final during this year was the highlight of the season, even in a 21-18 loss to the then defending champions Leinster. It was without a doubt the best performance from the Ulster side in a long time.

And they are in a great position to at least repeat the feat this year, going into the last two rounds in the Heineken Champions Cup next month on top of the pool.

The crunch game no doubt comes in France when they meet Clermont, sitting only a point behind them. A victory would see them face Bath at home for what should be a guaranteed home quarter-final. A loss in Clermont still leaves them in a strong position to go through as one of three best runners-up, but an away day in the last eight.

Europe is always difficult to gauge on progress because it depends who you have in the pool stages each season.

McFarland had some scratching their heads earlier this year when he said he did not believe Ulster were one of the top eight sides in Europe, but when you actually sat down and thought about it, he was referring to the sides who regularly enjoy success and making the play-offs.

Indeed when you sat back in the chair and reflected on what he said - it was difficult to argue.

However, it is a reflection of what McFarland is driving at Ulster. Another quarter-final this year would continue to deliver the progress he is striving for.

The PRO14 is another beast. It plays out for the full length of the season, there are international windows when players are not available - including the IRFU player welfare programme - and those are the times when you need your Academy players to step up.

Ulster regularly make the play-offs, but an outright victory still eludes them in the current format.

The performances recently in both Europe and the derby PRO14 games against Leinster and Connacht, would suggest Ulster are on the brink of something special this season.

They are on the upturn after a couple of difficult seasons, the confidence has returned on and off the pitch. And they are not likely to get carried away with it all, as McFarland has the knack of keeping a lid on things.

As the first game of the New Year approaches on Friday night Ulster welcome Munster to Belfast in what is sure to be another cracking derby encounter, just as the four games involving the Provinces have delivered in the past fortnight.

Munster’s season could hinge on the next couple of weeks as they look to keep a grip on top spot in Conference B of the PRO14, while they also need to produce a big result in Paris a week later when they meet Racing 92 in Europe - their Champions Cup hopes are hanging by a thread in their pool.

For Ulster, there is a home record to protect, plus the need to maintain their PRO14 run as they are set for a straight hit-out with Cheetahs for second place (behind Leinster) in Conference A and a home play-off.

There will be no talk this week of Europe, but it will be grinding away in the back of the mind as Ulster think ahead to the visit to Clermont.

It is not expected to have a massive impact on selection for the derby game - but then McFarland knows he has the back-up he needs in the wings if required.

2020 could yet prove to be a defining period for this Ulster squad.