Opinion: Ulster class of 2018-19 have raised the bar

Ulster's Michael Lowry
Ulster's Michael Lowry
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Ulster’s season ended disappointingly with a heavy 50-20 loss to Glasgow Warriors in Scotstoun on Friday night.

Once again the Scottish side were to deny Ulster a place in the Celtic League competition’s final.

The Ulster team clap Rory Best off the pitch

The Ulster team clap Rory Best off the pitch

It was not the way Ulster wanted to finish what had been a fine campaign in this season’s PRO14 championship.

And it was not the way stalwarts Rory Best and Darren Cave wanted to bow out on their Ulster careers.

The supporters on the early flight back from Glasgow on Saturday morning reflected the mood. Seven years ago this weekend Ulster had lost to a record Heineken Cup final scoreline to Leinster.

On Friday, they shipped the second highest loss in a semi-final, and their fourth loss at the penultimate stage.

It will not be the fact Ulster lost to the Scots - away wins in knockout games are rare - but it will be the scoreline and the manner of the defeat that will be remembered.

However, while the review process must be undertaken, as they do every game, Ulster can also look back on a season when, for a change, they exceeded their expectations.

They went through their PRO14 and European campaigns with only one defeat at home!

They secured a knockout place in the European Champions Cup for the first time in five years!

And for the first time in two years, played in the Final Series of the PRO14!

This time a year ago Ulster were playing Ospreys in a European Champions Cup qualification game.

To have secured knockout rounds in both the PRO14 and Europe this season was beyond expectations.

And while the semi-final loss was painful, just as the narrow defeat to Leinster in the Heineken Cup quarter-final was too, Ulster are on an upward curve.

The departures of Best and Cave will leave big gaps, but Ulster have natural leaders within the squad to fill the captaincy and players who can step up.

With the new signings already confirmed, Ulster have done some good business and they will add further to the strength and depth.

The other key factor is the use of so many young players this season from the Ulster Academy.

Ulster used 51 players over the season - something which would never have been heard of in the past, reliant as they felt they were on so many key players.

But the results during the Six Nations period - 21 points in five games - reflected the ability of the youngsters coming through. The experience they have had from this year will hold them and the Province in good stead as they look ahead.

Dan McFarland will have a proper pre-season with the club - and a few weeks extra to prepare given the league starts at the end of September - and able to really build on what has been achieved this season.

McFarland’s input cannot be underestimated, along with that of his support team in the backroom of Dwayne Peel, Jared Payne and Dan Soper as well as the now departing Aaron Dundon.

He has grown as a head coach and with that will come added pressures next season.

The expectations will have grown and a bar has been set, which Ulster will look to better in 2019-20.