OPINION: Ulster are in a good place

Ulster's Tommy Bowe and Charles Piutau celebrate with try scorer Jacob Stockdale in Friday night's win over the Dragons
Ulster's Tommy Bowe and Charles Piutau celebrate with try scorer Jacob Stockdale in Friday night's win over the Dragons

Forget the fact that the Dragons side which played in Belfast on Friday night was one of the poorest teams to do so - Ulster went out and did their business.

The Welsh side had made 13 changes to the side which had defeated Connacht a week earlier.

Ulster had also run the changes, nine different faces in the starting line-up to that which had beaten Scarlets.

The difference was, those who came into the Ulster side added something.

The likes of Darren Cave, Charles Piutau and Tommy Bowe obviously are of a quality standard, but to see Nick Timoney make his first competitive start, score two tries and pick up the man of the match award was pleasing.

Paul Marshall gave a solid showing at scrumhalf and it was equally pleasing to see his replacement Dave Shanahan play outside the comfort zone instead of simple coming on and shuffling ball out the backline. He took his try well.

On a night when the backs were running amok it was perhaps disappointing not to see Jacob Stockdale get more ball out side.

However, he again showed why he is on the international roster with his poaching skills - and had Tommy Bowe not got the faintest of touches with a finger on the ball during a Dragons backline move, the young winger would have poached a double.

Timoney’s performance was stand-out on the night. Leinster did not think he was good enough for their Academy system, Ulster are certainly going to benefit.

He is also part of the Ireland sevens squad which has qualified for the World Series for the first time.

That again strengthens the argument for the young players on the Academies to be part of a regular sevens set-up, playing week in and out, developing their basic skills and learning even more.

Club rugby brings so much and Banbridge are fortunate to have Timoney in their ranks in the All Ireland League.

The backrow forward played for them last week and on Tuesday got the nod he would start for Ulster.

Timoney and Matty Rea, who had been involved in the previous three weeks, show there is the strength in depth there.

With Marcell Coetzee and Jean Deysel on the injury list, it is good to know that there are players who are not just able to step in, but deliver as well.

Ulster still missed the ball carrying Coetzee and Deysel for a second week, but Robbie Diack upped his game in that department.

The eight-try demolition of Dragons in the 52-25 victory was pleasing, but it was disappointing in some respects that it was not more.

Ulster coughed up soft penalties and equally soft tries against a side they should have shut out after the break.

There is no doubt Jono Gibbes arrival as head coach is having an impact.

We have seen in recent weeks the improvement in breakdown play, Ulster getting over the ball, making and taking big physical hits and having bit more grunt about them generally.

Several players this week have talked about a fairly ruthless approach by the New Zealander - perhaps it is the proverbial kick up the backside which was needed!

Four wins from four cannot be ignored and Ulster are top of their Conference. It is hard not to see them still there at the end of this block of fixtures.

I was one of many who was critical of the performance, in spite of a win, away to Benetton - looking at their recent results (wins over Edinburgh and Ospreys) perhaps it was a decent result.

Ulster return to Italy this weekend to face Zebre - who enjoyed a big win over Southern Kings on Saturday - knowing they have to prepare exactly the same way as last week to get the win. And we expect it.