Catherine went to her first Ulster game in 2002 and was an instant convert. She loves the atmosphere at Ravenhill but her best Ulster moment is David Humphrey’s last minute drop goal in Swansea to win the competition in 2006 – the best moment of her sporting life!
How does a team get over the disappointment of losing the biggest game in European club rugby? That’s the question facing Ulster and new coach Mark Anscombe.
The lesson from last season: success tastes good and both players and fans will want more of the same. Ulster have shown they have the quality for Europe, but perhaps the pertinent question for the coming season will be whether the club possesses the squad depth and consistency to compete in the RaboDirect PRO12 as well.
How Ulster cope with player absence due to international duty will be key to how the league season pans out. Quick, accurate passing and kicking ability make Ruan Pienaar the pivot for much of Ulster’s play, but he seems set to miss the first month of the season with South Africa. Meanwhile, the IRFU player management programme means we won’t see much of Irish internationals like Rory Best, Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe at Ravenhill.
Still, the situation provides opportunities for other players to show their mettle. Among the young players, look out for Iain Henderson, a versatile back row or lock in the mould of Stephen Ferris who made an impressive trying-scoring full debut at Thomond Park last season. Pacey full back Peter Nelson is another good prospect but he may find his appearances limited.
Pedrie Wannenberg and Ian Humphreys are gone, but Tommy Bowe, Niall O’Connor and Roger Wilson have come home and Kiwi full-back Jared Payne is back after suffering a season-ending injury just three games into his Ulster career.
Bowe in particular poses a selection dilemma. Tommy’s direct running should bring a cutting edge to the attack, but if he is to play on the wing, who will make way? The stronger, more experienced Andrew Trimble or young gun Craig Gilroy, whose quick feet and beautifully-balanced running were such a highlight of the past two seasons.
Niall O’Connor or Paddy Jackson at out-half is another tricky decision for Anscombe. At 25, O’Connor is the more experienced of the pair, but Jackson’s assured performances – Twickenham aside – in the second half of last season suggested that he’s the man for the future.
Developing players like Jackson is the way forward. Ulster get accused of relying on expensive foreign talent but the griping about Ulster’s foreign legion ignores the quality of our Irish internationals. There can’t be many sides out there who wouldn’t jump at the chance to sign the likes of Best, Ferris or Bowe.
Where the foreign players are concerned, there’s nothing wrong with recruiting well and in any case the IRFU limits the number of non-Irish qualified players in the squad to four. Why wouldn’t Ulster sign the best they can within those limits? And what player wouldn’t benefit from playing and training alongside the likes of John Afoa, Ruan Pienaar and Johan Muller?
Ulster have the players to succeed – both foreign and home-grown – and this could be the season it all comes together. The key ingredients are there and, having glimpsed glory last year, the team should be hungry for more. I’d love to see 2012-13 end with Johan Muller getting his hands on some silverware. Ulster have shown their ambition; this could be the year it pays off.
Best addition to your side? Tommy Bowe
Opening day prediction? A home win over Glasgow would be a good start to the season
Overall season prediction for your side? 3rd
Other predictions? Paddy Jackson to finish top points scorer and Craig Gilroy to get an Ireland call-up
Who's going to win the RaboDirect PRO12? Leinster