Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ulster need to stay focused

Last season’s start was an exception rather than a rule for Ulster, writes Ryan Cullen…

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No need to panic

Never has the old adage ‘it’s a marathon not a sprint’ been so apt.

This time last year Ulster started at a gallop, producing the best rugby of their season before Christmas and drawing acclaim from seasoned observers and supporters alike. Fast forward 12 months and the collective groan at the conclusion of Glasgow’s visit to Ravenhill tells you all you need to know.

The blend of physicality and fluidity that seemed to come so easily to Ulster at the start of last season seems like a pipedream currently. Where once passes were fast and flat, they now loop and stop their intended receivers. Lines of running often seem dim and communication less than clear.

But, 2012 -13 aside, was it not always thus? Last season was the exception, not the rule. It is to be expected that players will not hit their stride straight away. And the bare facts of two defeats from two games do not tell the whole story.

Looking more closely at results so far, whilst the first game in Newport was a pretty turgid affair, Ulster would have emerged with the victory had Paddy Jackson brought his kicking boots with him. And had just one of the numerous try scoring opportunities created against Glasgow on Friday night been converted, the late Warriors try would have been irrelevant. A couple of small changes and Ulster could be sitting pretty, two from two.

Secondly, it is important to look at the playing squad. It is fair to say that Ulster will realistically make up to 10 changes for the first round of the Heineken Cup. The starting line-ups put out so far certainly haven’t been weak ones, particularly at Ravenhill last Friday, but neither have they been the best XV.

Of course it would have been nice to have registered at least one win by now but this relatively minimal short term pain could lead to significantly more long term gain. The delayed start to the season so many of the premier players are having can only be beneficial come the business end of the season.

It would be disingenuous to suggest Ulster didn’t win anything last season because they were tired but surely having fresher players in the new year cannot be a bad thing. More generally, it is pleasing to see Irish provinces considering long-term player welfare after the gruelling summer itineraries taken in by some players. It is certainly a stark contrast to the policies adopted by many of the other clubs in Europe.

Of course, this all assumes that Ulster will be needing fresh players come the spring. Whilst Heineken Cup last eight qualification may prove difficult this year, failure to qualify for the Pro12 playoffs and at least the Amlin Cup would be unacceptable given the depth and quality of the squad at Mark Anscombe’s disposal.

Should Ulster start the Heineken Cup well and get back on track over the next few weeks, the memory of the two sub-par performances to start the season will quickly vanish. Mark Anscombe and his men certainly won’t be panicking. Neither should anybody else.

Never to be forgotten

Friday night at Ravenhill saw the marking of the one year anniversary of the Spence family tragedy.

I didn’t know Nevin Spence nor did I ever meet him, but the best tribute I can pay to him is that he was the type of player any club would love to have. As with any professional player he was talented and tough. But his standout quality was his unswerving commitment.

Never shirking a tackle, always running that hard angle and putting his body on the line for the sake of the team – that was Nevin Spence. That he is being immortalised at the new Ravenhill is entirely fitting.

It was also heart-warming to see the messages of support and tribute coming in from around the rugby world over the past week. Once again the rugby community has demonstrated that whilst there is no sport more competitive, there is a genuine bond between all those involved in the sport.

Unions must stand firm in battle for control

The battle for the future of European rugby stepped up a gear with the announcement of plans for a new competition by the representatives of English and French clubs. Without entering into a discussion of the whys and wherefores of the debate, everyone must by now be aware that the future of European rugby is on the line.

Under the proposals of English and French clubs, the sustainability of professional European rugby outside of England and France is questionable. The Six Nations would become a mere husk. Hopes of broadening the base of Rugby Union playing nations would disappear. It is not simply the future of the Heineken and Amlin Cups that is at stake in coming months.

Most rational people can see that English and French clubs have some valid points regarding the current European setup. The Pro12 is not on a par with the Premiership and Top 14 in terms of overall competitiveness. Financially, English clubs do not get a fair deal from their Union. French clubs do have to play their best players much more often to ensure qualification for the European competitions.

Whilst these are undoubtedly legitimate concerns, they cannot be used to bully the rest of Europe down a road from which there will be no turning back. If the Unions and IRB do not stand firm now, Rugby Union as we know it will likely change forever.

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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