Stephen Ferris has spoken of his delight at the growing strength in depth at former Magners League champions Ulster.
The Northern Irishmen claimed the Celtic crown back in 2006 but have struggled to match that achievement ever since, only registering one fifth-placed showing and finishing in the bottom three on three successive occasions in the four years since their famous triumph.
But while last year’s eighth-place offering fell short of expectations, star flanker Ferris believes a summer of solid recruitment will stand the province in good stead for another grueling campaign.
“In the past, if we got injuries, we struggled because we didn’t have the squad depth to handle that. Sometimes, if there were a few niggles, we found it difficult to cope,” Ferris, who was his usual impressive self during Ulster’s opening-round win over the Ospreys last Friday, told the Belfast Telegraph.
“So it’s great that now we have a number of international-class players to call on.
“You’ve plenty of options in the pack. Look at the second row — Johann Muller, Tim Barker, Dan Tuohy, Ryan Caldwell — and then look at the back row.
“It’s great because there’s so much competition with Robbie Diack, myself, Chris Henry, Willie Faloon, Pedrie Wannenburg and then guys like TJ Anderson sticking their hands up as well.
“That’s all good. Competition keeps everybody on their toes and it means there’s good cover, too.
“We’re setting our goals high and that’s fair enough because when I look at our team on paper and compare it with others, I know which team I’d rather be in.
“When supporters open their programme and look at the player profiles I reckon they must feel pretty good about it. I know I do.”
Ferris is convinced that the future of rugby in Ulster is a bright one, thanks in no small part to the recruitment of a trio of Springboks.
Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg arrived at Ravenill during the summer, while Ruan Pienaar will soon be available to pull the strings at scrum-half.
Director of operations David Humphreys has already spoken of the trio’s qualities and their proven experience and Ferris is convinced that the South Africans will help create a culture of success in Belfast.
“They were our stand-out players in the warm-up games and they had big matches in their first competitive fixture against Ospreys,” said Ferris of Muller and Wannenburg.
“They bring a bit of experience and a bit of class to our team. I think Humph has done a great job in bringing these guys in to bolster things up.
“With Ruan Pienaar — another quality player — coming in to play behind that pack, that’s not a bad line-up.
“It’s all about building up the squad and hopefully it will mean we’re able to produce a great team.”