Joey Cullen is a student completing his Ph.D. in experimental physics in Dublin. A long time Ulster Rugby fan but first time blogger, his favourite rugby moment was when Ulster’s flanker Stephen Ferris picked up Australian scrum-half Will Genia in the 2011 Rugby World Cup and carried him (and the ball) like a rag doll back into the Wallabies’ 22.
Few sides can claim to have transformed their fortunes in such a short space of time as Ulster Rugby have but they are a side still in transition.
After the great success achieved by coach Brian McLaughlin last season many in Ulster questioned the decision by former Ulster fly-half David Humphreys to replace McLaughlin. And together we wondered could the Ulster of that season come back and improve again this year.
The answer is already a resounding yes.
The fast paced, controlled and accurate off-loading game Ulster have brought this season so far certainly displays some Canterbury qualities that new Kiwi coach Mark Anscombe has introduced. The results so far? Five wins from five matches in the RaboDirect PRO12, which means if you include their pre-season games with French Top 14 side Bayonne, Newcastle Falcons and familiar foes Leicester Tigers, Ulster are now unbeaten in eight games. Better still, three of those PRO12 clashes were against last year’s semi-finalists Glasgow and Munster, and eventual winners Ospreys.
While the start Ulster made this season is strong, the rugby community in Ulster has been deeply wounded by the death of promising young centre Nevin Spence along with his brother Graham and father Noel in a tragic farm accident.
The support received by the Ulster Rugby family has been immense from all corners of world rugby. A postponement was granted for Ulster’s match scheduled that week against RaboDirect PRO12 newcomers, Zebre, to allow the players and staff time to mourn the loss of one of the Province’s young sons. A respectful minute’s silence was observed at all PRO12 matches the following weekend, in some cases followed by a raucous chorus of Stand Up For The Ulster Men as in Dublin, Limerick and further afield.
It was a difficult period for the players and staff at Ulster Rugby but the competitive season continues and Ulster Rugby had to move on. What more fitting way to move on than by playing their next match with all the dedication and passion that Nevin brought to the pitch every time he played. That next match pitted Ulster against last year’s Heineken Cup quarter finalists, Cardiff Blues. After losing a six point lead kicked by fly-half Jason Tovey, however, the Blues never truly looked like stopping a rampaging Ulster pack and back line which managed to touch down seven tries in the Arms Park, culminating in the biggest home defeat for the Blues since their formation in 2003.
Mark Anscombe’s well-worked squad rotation has successfully incorporated over thirty players since the season’s start and the good form shown by the team has resulted in further call-ups for Ulster players to the national set-up with Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and Iain Henderson being the most recent Ulster additions.
All in all it looks like the fortunes that saw Ulster achieve some success in recent seasons is set to continue. Hopefully, this time with some silverware on the way.
• Biggest surprise so far? Leinster's injury list! They have more injuries than players.
• Most valuable player so far this season? Nick Williams
• Overall season prediction for your side? Semi-Finalists
• Other predictions? (Top-points or try scorers or anything else you’d like to venture!) Ulster for top try scoring side. Visser for top try scorer. Munster for most yellow and red card offences.
• Who's going to win the RaboDirect PRO12? Munster