Ulster have paid the price for the PRO14 expansion but it will be a blessing in the long run

Ulster have paid the price for the PRO14 expansion but it will be a blessing in the long run It looked for all money in the world that 2022 would […]

Ulster have paid the price for the PRO14 expansion but it will be a blessing in the long run

It looked for all money in the world that 2022 would be the year that Ulster finally ended their trophy drought that stretched back to 2006 by winning the United Rugby Championship, only to suffer an agonizing 17-15 semi-final defeat to the Stormers. To add insult to injury, the men from Cape Town finished the game with 14 players after Adré Smith was sent off ten minutes from time with Ulster leading. What followed was one of the most unbelievable sequences witnessed in domestic rugby for many moons as the Stormers crossed the whitewash on 84 minutes to level the scores before Manie Libbok, with ice running through his veins, successfully kicked the last-gasp conversion to break Ulster hearts. Indeed, the latest rugby updates had to change their headlines at the eleventh hour in order to declare a win for the Capetonians.

Heartbreak in the Mother City

There are tough defeats to take and then there is Ulster losing to the Stormers when a berth in the United Rugby Championship final looked like a formality. Furthermore, this young side had, up until that point, as pointed out in detail in the Ulster rugby magazine, hardly put a foot wrong in the quest for silverware having finished the regular season in third place. Additionally, a thumping win against Munster in the quarter-finals reinforced the idea that the Ulsterman could go all the way only for the lights to cruelly go out on a freezing afternoon in Cape Town.

Essentially, there is only so much wallowing in self-pity that Ulster fans can do given the inescapable truth is that professional sport is often merciless and unforgiving. Of course, they don’t need to be told this after many close shaves have ended in defeat over the last 16 years. The difference this time around, however, is that Ulster had been meticulous in their planning in an effort to finally hoist aloft this trophy only for the tournament to be expanded by allowing four of the best domestic teams in the world to compete. The real contentious issue, though, is the fact that these franchises all hail from the southern hemisphere and shouldn’t typically be included in what is very much a European competition. It was this decision that ultimately meant that the Ulster’s wait for silverware went on.

There is an argument to be made about having to beat the best to be considered the best and whilst that is true, having the goalposts moved in terms of team entries does leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth, especially when they end up losing four minutes after the final siren has gone following a backbreaking effort over the last few years to get back in the winner’s circle. It’s almost as if the worst nightmare of all those against allowing the teams from the Rainbow Nation to compete was confirmed during the loss to the Stormers.

What doesn’t kill you, can make you champions of Europe (and Africa)

The counter-argument however, and interestingly this seems to be the official line from Ulster, is that the expansion of the competition has proven to be an incredible success, despite a crushing defeat. This magnanimous attitude seems to suggest that Ulster welcome the chance to hone their skill’s against a world-beating nation irrespective of a bizarre geographical match-up.

Essentially, this is the Herculean task that now faces Ulster with the Belfast outfit left with only one option if they want to lift silverware. That is finding a way to beat the teams who come from a country that are the current world champions. Indeed, the MTN Springboks are largely made up of players who play for the Sharks, Bulls, Lions, and Stormers, who are, of course, the four teams that have been added to the competition. Furthermore, this challenge won’t get any easier over time, especially when you take into account that the latest odds provided by Betway for the 2023 Rugby World Cup winner, as of the 28th of June, price the South Africans at just 11/2 to defend their 2019 crown.

If anything, the talent pool in South Africa is getting even bigger, which ultimately means that the players coming to the Kingspan Stadium over the following seasons will be some of the most electrifying on the planet.

Whilst this may mean that, in the short term, Ulster will pay a heavy price for the competition’s expansion, in the long run, however, they will become one of the best teams on the planet as they learn to beat the trendsetters of world rugby.

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