Only two days to go until Ulster kick off their Guinness PRO14 season against Toyota Cheetahs at Kingspan Stadium. Are we in for more of the same disappointment as last season or is there light at the end of the tunnel?

In preseason Ulster shipped a combined total of 81 points and 13 tries against Wasps and Northampton Saints, our boys only scoring five tries in the process. There were wholesale changes made for each match with a 30-man panel named for both games, so it’s hard to take anything from the matches. However conceding 55 points to Northampton Saints will rankle with the players and it’s caused concern within the fan-base.

Ball carrying and retention are key in this professional game so ensuring that South African international Marcell Coetzee is starting the season with all cylinders firing is critical. In the four appearances he made last season, Coetzee stepped up and provided an alternative ball carrier to Stuart McCloskey.

Captaincy

Last year Andrew Trimble and Rob Herring assumed a dual captaincy role after Rory Best stepped down the year before. Best has since been reappointed captain for this season in what is a welcomed decision however it’s yet to be seen how many games the Irish international will feature in for Ulster. Last season he featured in 14 out of the 25 games. Ideally Ulster would love to see their captain on the pitch more often however his reappointment as Ulster captain could see a decrease in game time on the international scene.

New faces

Go forward ball was a problem last year with only Stuart McCloskey regularly getting Ulster on the front foot. As I said, Marcell Coetzee is key and, if fit, he will feel like a new signing. It is also likely that Jean Deysel has been signed to help carry the load. The South African joined from the Sharks, having been on a successful loan spell with Munster last year.

The revelation of Schalk Van Der Merwe’s long term injury after he had signed brought a collective groan of despair from the Kingspan faithful. The South African is expected to have recovered in time to make his debut later in September. Van Der Merwe featured as part of the Barbarians side that defeated Fiji in Belfast last November. Along with Ross Kane, Callum Black, Rodney Ah You, Kyle McCall and Jonny Simpson, Ulster are beginning to develop strength in depth at prop which has been a problem position in recent years.

John Cooney has arguably the most pressure placed on his shoulders out of the new signings. Filling the berth of an Ulster legend is one thing but expecting the former Connacht man to be the vital cog that links the pack and backs is a tremendous ask in the first season. Capped in the summer on Ireland’s tour of Japan and USA, Cooney is expected to feature against the Cheetahs on Friday night. Primarily a scrum half, Cooney can also fill in at outhalf and is an accomplished dead ball kicker.

Lastly, the signing of Christian Lealiifano brings much needed relief to the supporters at Kingspan Stadium. Faced with the prospect of entering the new season without an established out half, Lealiifano provides short term cover in a crucial position. Lealiifano and Cooney should be Ulster’s first choice halfbacks in a difficult Champions Cup campaign with the former occupying a more rotational position in the domestic season.

New faces on the training ground

Respected coach Jonno Gibbes joined the province from Top14 winners Clermont Auvergne. Credited with turning Clermont’s pack into one of the most abrasive in Europe, this is a massive coup for Ulster Rugby. In the preseason match against Wasps, there was an emphasis on forward play and Ulster look more competent in attacking and defending line-out mauls.

Dwayne Peel was recruited from relegated Aviva Premiership side Bristol. Despite being an unknown quantity off the pitch, Peel was an accomplished player, winning 76 Welsh caps after making his debut aged 19. He was the youngest player on the 2005 Lions Tour of New Zealand. Joining as an assistant coach to Les Kiss, Peel will hopefully spark a talented back-line into life after they flattered to deceive much of last season.

Completing the new faces in the management team is former Leinster hooker Aaron Dundon. Dundon has coaching credentials, he helped lead Clontarf to two All Ireland League titles in three seasons. Ulster have several talented props at their disposal in Ross Kane and Kyle McCall together with Wiehahn Herbst and Van Der Merwe, and I look forward to seeing what Dundon can do with them.

Improvement is key

It’s been 11 years since Ulster last tasted success and four since the RaboDirect PRO12 Final and, currently, it seems to many  that Ulster Rugby has taken one monumental step backwards.

Ulster’s defensive pattern was not great all season but it got significantly worse after the departure of Joe Barakat at Christmas. In the 13 matches he was defensive coach last season, Ulster conceded 28 tries while the opposition crossed 35 times after Barakat departed. Indeed Ulster only kept the opposition try-less on one occasion last year – European Champions Cup match v Exeter.

After Barakat’s departure, Ulster lost two games  by less than four points, against eventual winners Scarlets and runners up Munster. Two games that Ulster were capable of winning and would have put them level on points with Scarlets and ahead of Ospreys in fourth place.

On the attacking front Ulster were often very one dimensional and reliant on Stuart McCloskey to break the gain line. Rarely did we see Ulster play in a direct and exciting manner. One of Ulster’s best performances last season was in Scotstoun against Glasgow Warriors.

It wasn’t the ‘perfect performance’, but Ulster’s willingness to take the ball at speed to the opposition was not only attractive on the eye but hugely effective as it allowed Ulster’s outside backs to thrive on space and Glasgow insecurity. It’s also no coincidence that Jared Payne started at full back in Ulster’s best performance last season.

It feels like a new side a Kingspan with so many new faces and a new ‘playbook’ drafted. Overdue changes have been made with the correct intentions in mind but rustiness at the start of the season is expected and there is still anxiety within the Ulster fan-base that things have not progressed.

Certainly, a number of positive victories in the opening matches and the 55 point drubbing by Northampton will be quickly forgotten. Ulster still don’t strike me as a silverware winning side but they’re definitely capable of achieving a top three finish in their conference.

Les Kiss is entering a defining second full season in charge having appointed new coaches. I can’t see the Ulster, nor their supporters, being as forgiving if we are in for a carbon copy performance of last year.

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