RUGBY OPINION: Confidence is growing within the Ulster ranks

Ulster's Matty Rea
Ulster's Matty Rea

When Ulster opened their new Guinness PRO14 season with a resounding victory over Cheetahs for the new season rose dramatically.

After what had been a disappointing previous season, few had been predicting big things for Les Kiss’s side.

The 42-19 win over new side Cheetahs from South Africa suddenly had everyone eating their words.

Ulster then went to Italy and, although leading 21-0 against Benetton Treviso, ended up defending their line furiously before eventually winning 21-14.

That brought some criticism, but when you reflect that Treviso won their next two games against Ospreys and Edinburgh, coupled with Ulster’s poor away form, the result in Italy was a good one.

Ulster then faced their biggest threat to date, the visit of the champions Scarlets to Kingspan Stadium.

With key players missing, few gave Kiss’s side a fair hearing - they again delivered with one of the most intense displays in Belfast in some time.

Last week’s demolition of a poor Dragons side saw Ulster make it four from four and soar to the top of Conference B - they can return there today after they were displaced by Scarlets and Leinster who both won last night.

One fact from those first four games is that Ulster have not fielded the same side on any occasion.

Last week there were nine changes to the team which defeated Dragons and on Friday Kiss announced a side showing 12 changes.

Admittedly, the quality Ulster have been able to bring in to the starting XV makes them clear favourites to defeat a Zebre side who they only lost to once in all competitions.

Yes, the Italians are on a high after a win in South African last weekend, picked up a rare try-scoring bonus point on the road in a huge win.

But Ulster have 10 internationals on their starting side and this is an opportunity to put down a marker on the road.

Ulster are also aiming to make it five from five and maintain their spot at the top of Conference B.

Confidence is growing within the Ulster squad and the fact they can produce the wins they have with so many key players missing is something to be positive about.

There is now evidence of strength in depth in this Ulster squad something which had been talked about before, but there was rarely evidence to back it up in terms of results on the pitch.

The Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy has produced some exciting talent over the years, but perhaps in comparison to the other Provinces like Leinster and Munster, the players may not have been exposed to the senior level as much.

The emergence of Jacob Stockdale and Rob Lyttle last season and backrow forwards Matty Rea and Nick Timoney this year is a continuing promising step in the right direction.

Three of them are named on the matchday squad for this afternoon’s game in Parma.

The expected win over Zebre will repeat Ulster’s start to last season - five from five. Then they lost to Connacht in Galway and the rest of the season went South as well until the turn of the Year.

Ironically, Connacht come to Belfast next Friday night in round six and Ulster have not hidden from the fact that they want to learn from last season’s mistakes - and appear to be doing so.

With the Irish launch of the European Champions Cup on Monday that means there are a couple of important fixtures coming up.

Ulster face Wasps in Belfast on Friday, October 13 before going to French side La Rochelle the following Sunday (October 22).

If Ulster can call on a similar side as today, and maybe even have Marcell Coetzee and Jared Payne back in the mix - they can judge where they are against two of Europe’s best.