While it would be easy to get too carried away, Ulster’s fourth place standing in the Magners League table after the first segment of the season, is welcome and justified.
Call it the McLaughlin Revolution if you choose – and although new coach, Brian McLaughlin, is happy to stay away from the limelight where possible – what he and his assistants, Jeremy Davidson and Neil Doak have achieved in the early part of the season is quite remarkable.
Ulster had been battling it out at the bottom of the table, making sure they were ahead of Connacht in the Irish rankings for the Heineken Cup. And let’s be honest, in the previous two seasons, the Northern Province managed to just do that by the skin of their teeth. But winning against Connacht and qualifying for the big European stage is fine, but if you are unable to compete at that level, then the season comes down to two results against the Western Province and a couple of wins here and there, plus a spectacular one off display.
What McLaughlin and Co have done, along with the players, is put a large slice of “Ulster” back into Ulster Rugby. Playing with pride. Wearing that jersey and playing in it with the pride it deserves.
Admittedly, on the opening day of the Magners League campaign, following a quite dreadful display in a 23-6 defeat to Dragons in Newport, there were few who would have said Ulster would pick themselves up and finish in fourth place by the end of the first part of the campaign.
To go to Swansea and take on the might of the Ospreys, and win 20-16, showed a dramatic turnaround from Ulster and there was suddenly expectation again. But the first home game of the year was to be disappointing as Ulster slipped to a 16-13 reverse against Edinburgh. Bang went the fortress Ravenhill theory and back came the thought of this is going to be a long season, where we are going to win one, lose one and never get any momentum going.
McLaughlin urged patience. And we gave it to him. Suddenly, with a 30-6 bonus point win over Connacht, Ulster were flirting with those at the top of the table. And then a win over Leinster at home ensured Ulster led the way. It was an important win – the first over the Leinster side in years – and set Ulster up perfectly for the tricky trip to Thomond Park. A place of great memories.
Their only performance the year before came in Limerick, when they thumped the European Champions by a record home score. It was not to be repeated, but Ulster still performed well and although they slipped to fourth place with the rest of the weekend results, to finish in that position before the Autumn International series got underway was fully merited.
The key now, after the break, will be see if they can sustain where they are. A home win against Edinburgh and a Boxing Day success over Leinster in Dublin, would be the perfect way to finish 2009. It is not beyond this progressing Ulster team.