Ulster's time is now
October 5, 2010
Has Andrew Trimble taken the fear factor away from the Rec? © Getty Images
When it comes to this year's Heineken Cup, there is a genuine threat that Irish rugby could be about to witness a shift in the balance of power.
For the last 10 years, the Irish European story has centered on two provinces, Munster and Leinster, and it is has been no coincidence that the vast majority of the Ireland international players that landed three Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam over that period came from those two teams.
Ulster have not been a relevant force, unable to qualify for the knock-out stages since they went all the way in 1999 - admittedly in a year when the English clubs turned up their noses at Europe's premier club competition. The fallow years have been a source of deep concern up north and, with former out-half and bona-fide Ulster 'legend' David Humphreys now wielding a profound influence as Director of Operations, they have set about putting matters to rights.
Considerable funds were acquired and Ulster spent a fruitful summer recruiting three heavy-hitting Springboks in the shape of second-row Johann Muller, back-row Pedrie Wannenburg and utility back Ruan Pienaar - their marquee purchase. With fellow Springbok prop BJ Botha already on the books, together with the likes of experienced Scottish winger Simon Danielli, it has given Ulster some serious overseas clout.
Not overly burdened by restrictions under the controversial World Cup player management scheme, there is genuine depth to Brian McLaughlin's squad and the benefits have been seen in a powerful start to the Magners League which has brought four victories and a draw from their first five outings.
Those performances have not been without flaws but their unbeaten run has provided Ulster with considerable momentum as they head into Europe and their confidence has been increased by an eminently manageable Pool draw. Ulster open their campaign on Friday when Italian newcomers Aironi visit Belfast with Bath and Biarritz completing the pool - neither of whom have been particularly convincing in their respective leagues.
Ravenhill is reacquiring the intimidating aura that made the old ground virtually impregnable during Ulster's best years and McLaughlin can confidently expect to win his home Pool matches with Aironi providing bonus point potential, home and away. Bath were dismantled by Gloucester at the Rec last weekend and that is a venue that holds few fears for Ulster in any case, following their Andrew Trimble-inspired victory there last season.
Biarritz, last year's beaten finalists, will be a tough proposition in the south of France in the second round of matches but Ulster can afford to lose there and still find the wherewithal to come through - particularly as Aironi's presence provides the possibility of two teams advancing from Pool Four.
Contrast that situation with the challenges facing Munster and Leinster. Tony McGahan's Munster head into the hazardous waters of Pool three, which contains London Irish, Toulon and the Ospreys. The Exiles are motoring well at the top of the Premiership and are showing a hard edge under the guidance of Toby Booth.
The Ospreys' array of talent incorporates a host of Welsh Grand Slammers, an Irish equivalent in Tommy Bowe and New Zealand nous in the form of flankers Jerry Collins and Marty Holah. Meanwhile, cash-rich Toulon take their bow in the Heineken Cup having assembled some of the top names in world rugby, including Carl Hayman, George Smith and Jonny Wilkinson.
It is a daunting prospect by any standards but, though it will be far from easy, Munster have the capacity to come through. A refocus on forward principles has worked well and their pack has regained the bite they were once renowned (and feared) for. Although Leinster won their recent Magners League encounter, there was precious little in it and no team will fancy facing Munster - least of all at Thomond Park.
Meanwhile, Leinster have been placed in one of the most difficult pools in Heineken Cup history. Top 14 champions Clermont, Parisian powerhouses Racing Metro and South African-soaked Saracens represent three teams who could have justifiable designs on going the whole way in the competition.
It means that if Leinster lose their opening clash with Racing at the RDS they are immediately sunk. On that basis, the victory over Munster provided much-needed and timely reassurance after a tough start to Joe Schmidt's reign as head coach.
Leinster's form going into that clash had been deeply disquieting but their defensive uncertainty was eradicated against Munster and Jonathan Sexton's second-half introduction for his seasonal debut unlocked some encouraging backline invention. Sexton's recovery from the quad injury that disrupted his early season is vital, as is the presence of Jamie Heaslip and Brian O'Driscoll - scorer of the crucial try against Munster.
Schmidt's knowledge from his successful stint as Clermont assistant coach will be an essential ingredient and further confidence will come from the return of captain Leo Cullen after a lengthy period out with a shoulder injury. However, whatever way you look at it, getting out of Pool three is still a big ask.
It creates the genuine possibility that, come the spring, the Heineken Cup quarter-finals could go ahead without Munster or Leinster involved - far from ideal in World Cup year. Conversely, if they do manage to battle through it will be a huge boost for national coach Declan Kidney. Either way, Ulster should be in the last eight because they will surely be motivated by the fact that, with everything falling into place for them this year, failure to qualify will constitute the lowest point in 10 years of European failure.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Hugh Farrelly is a rugby writer based in Dublin and works primarily for the Irish Independent newspaper