Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Exciting times for Ulster fans

A new season is upon us and @cyberryan87 is back with his regular contributions to HoR2…

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At this stage of every year excitement begins to build for all European rugby fans. With the summer hiatus coming to an end, a season full of promise and opportunity awaits even those who plumbed the depths of despair just a few short months ago. For all, hope shines bright every August.

And for Ulster fans, that light seems to be shimmering more brightly than for some time going into the 2013-14 season.

Ulster have certainly made significant physical progress over the summer months. The two end stands, which were still just shells at the time of the Pro12 semi-final against the Scarlets, are now completed and will be unveiled at the special pre-season fixture with Leinster this Friday evening. With work on the main stand well underway also, Ulster fans will be able to get a feel for just how their home will look this time next year.

That Ulster have managed to keep all of last season’s squad together is another reason for excitement ahead of the new season. In recent years Leinster have demonstrated the benefits of continuity and there is certainly a belief that Mark Anscombe can take the team on again having had a full season to now adjust to European rugby.

Although there weren’t any ‘marquee’ arrivals, the retention of John Afoa is better than almost any signing Ulster could have made in the close season. The news that Stephen Ferris is remaining at the club for the foreseeable future has also provided an unexpected boost. Let’s hope he can now get fit again.

That the likes of Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Iain Henderson now have a full season in their legs and that should see them make further progress, whilst the return of James McKinney to the squad will provide some much needed competition for the number 10 shirt. It certainly wouldn’t be a major shock to see him pushing for a starting spot sooner rather than later.

Sadly, the Pro12 doesn’t seem any stronger than last season. Perennial challengers Leinster and Munster should provide stern competition, as should last year’s surprise package Glasgow, but it’s hard to see beyond these four clubs for the playoff spots at this stage. Let’s hope the Welsh regions can throw up at least one challenger.

In the Heineken Cup, Ulster could certainly have been handed an easier pool but it would be a major disappointment if they weren’t right there with Leicester fighting for top spot. Montpellier and Treviso are increasingly dangerous sides but it would certainly be a surprise if Ulster’s encounters with Leicester weren’t the defining factors of this group.

All in all, Ulster’s on-field chances should be at least as good as they were last season. The squad is stronger now than at this stage last year and there are genuine reasons to think there is potential for some further improvement.

Anything other than a spot in the Pro12 playoffs and another Heineken Cup QF place will certainly be deemed a failure.

Of course, Ulster fans have the new Irish era to look forward to also. Joe Schmidt’s appointment has been met with almost universal acclaim but with that good will comes high hopes and big expectations. That he needs to make progress from last year is a given but given the upheaval since the Six Nations it would be unfair to expect miracles straight away.

Much like Stuart Lancaster did when he took over the England role, Schmidt must be prepared to lose games in the short term to gain ground long term. Ireland’s primary aim is the World Cup in 2015 and a few autumn and Six Nations defeats in the interim will be long forgotten if Schmidt can take Ireland to a semi-final.

For now though, thoughts of Ireland are at the back of the mind as we all look forward to the return of Friday nights at Ravenhill. Bring it on!

My name is Ryan Cullen and I am a 25 year old Ulster season ticket holder. I was introduced to the game around 15 years ago and have loved it ever since. I have an interest in pretty much all sports though so don’t be surprised to see a few football (Liverpool), Golfing and Racing interests (to name but a few) thrown in from time to time.

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