Have Ulster joined Munster and Leinster as the Elite European Rugby Teams?
Posted on Monday, January 16, 2012 at 07:27 AM
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Leicester Coach Richard Cockerill's submission after their resounding loss against Ulster on Friday night was music to the ears of a set of fans that have, for a long time, been supporting the third best team in Irish rugby.
Ulster likely still are the third best team on the island of Ireland, but the gap is closing with each and every game.
Irish rugby is definitely on the rise with all four teams now competing in the Heineken cup. Connaught may sit at the bottom of Pool 6 with only two losing bonus points and no victories, but just being in the competition this year is a huge achievement for that side.
Ulster have, for the most part, been also rans over the past decade since winning the competition in 1999. They did escape the group last season before falling in the first knockout round to Northampton by 23-13.
Crucially, Ulster had to travel to England to face Northampton last year which arguably turned the game. This year, Ulster have shown greater clinicism and control in their play. They currently sit as the third seed—fittingly behind Munster and Leinster—in the whole tournament.
Ulster's 41-7 victory, over Leicester on Friday night in Belfast, pushed the club onto 19 points, three clear of second placed Clermont Auvergne and 7 ahead of Leicester. What was more notable for Ulster fans, was the performance on the field of every single player wearing the shirt.
While watching the game, the most impressive and encouraging sign on the field, was the quality of coaching and leadership on the field.
Andrew Trimble may have taken all the plaudits for his two try effort, both of which were expertly finished, but the real sign of an elite team came when Trimble allowed Geordan Murphy to cross the line for Leicester's only score.
There is a certain aura that comes with winners, especially at home.
Ulster showed that calmness and tranquility in the face of adversity on Friday night that has eclipsed Thomond Park over the past decade. Teams that aren't used to winning, generally panic when they concede a try in such a pivotal position as Ulster did on Friday night. Winning teams don't panic, they respond.
Led by a winning attitude that permeates from the top from, Brian McLoughlin, who is the team's head coach after being part of the Irish staff who won two triple crowns in 2006 and 2007 and David Humphreys, a stalwart of Irish rugby, is the director of rugby.
Crucially however, Ulster have brought in quality veterans who understand not only the physical, but the mental side of the game. Players like John Afoa, Rory Best, Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace and, most recently, Stefan Terblanche are all proven international players with vast experience at the top level.
While Terblanche is at the very end of his career, Afoa, Best, Pienaar and Wallace, to an extent, are only entering the respective primes of their careers.
Afoa and Best are the undisputed leaders from the front, but when you add Tom Court to the mix, then you respect the front row for being one of the best in the Heineken cup opposed to just good leadership.
Ulster's roster is at it's peak with the perfect mixture of youth and experience.
Complementing guys like Afoa and Terblanche are younger players with international experience and seemingly endless talent in Stephen Ferris and Andrew Trimble. Darren Cave isn't a household name like Ferris and Trimble but he has shown a lot in the center at only 24 years of age, while Ian Humphries has created a partnership to matchup with anyone across Europe with Pienaar as the team's halfback pairing.
Ulster's greatest strength, and the biggest reason that they have catapulted themselves into the conversation as one of Europe's best, is their ability to bring in top level talent from elsewhere.
Terblanche may only be on a short term deal, but he has slotted into the side perfectly, while Afoa has been an excellent replacement for BJ Botha who was lost to Munster.
However, one man stands out above all others and is undoubtedly Ulster's key player as they travel to face Clermont Auvergne next week in the Pool 4 decider.
Ruan Pienaar was a world cup winner with South Africa before arriving in Ulster at the start of the 2010 season. He is capped 51 times for his country and was named the player of the season in the Magners League last season.
Pienaar's confidence and demeanor on the field is only matched by his talent. His teammates appear to feed off of his confidence on the field, trusting in his composure to carry them through games. Quick ball and control at the breakdown is a big factor of Ulster's game, Pienaar shows Peter Stringer like control without the limitations in defense or attack that Stringer had.
His ability to play both outside half and scrum half make him invaluable to the Ulster men and one of the best players on show in the whole of the Heineken cup.
Ulster will be looking to Pienaar this weekend against Clermont, but by no means are they totally reliant on him. Much like Ronan O'Gara is for Munster, and Jonathan Sexton is for Leinster, Pienaar will be asked to do a lot.
Much like Munster and Leinster also, Ulster have a talented enough team to win in France.
A marquee victory in the later rounds will determine whether they are an elite team or not, but Ulster are definitely trying to squeeze in next to Munster and Leinster as one of the best teams in Europe.
That is, providing they haven't already.
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