Backing the young guns has proved fruitful for Ulster head coach Dan McFarland thus far in the season. And they are repaying the faith they have been given.
Ulster have again secured a place in the knockout stages of Europe, something which is becoming a habit and is one of the targets McFarland had set when he took over the reins.
Last season’s Covid ravaged European Champions Cup saw Ulster lose to both Toulouse and Gloucester in their pool games – the return fixtures were never completed due to the pandemic – and they ended up having to make their debut in the Challenge Cup.
But it was still knockout rugby and they reached the semi-finals before a second half implosion away to Leicester Tigers saw them throw away a golden opportunity to be playing in a European Final for the first time since 2012.
The nature of that defeat and the hunger to want to do better has been a factor in how Ulster have performed in Europe to date.
Plus, of course, the exuberance of youth as Robert Baloucoune, Mike Lowry, Stuart Moore, Ethan McIlroy and Nathan Doak all played a huge part in what was an at times adventurous performance in the 24-20 victory over Northampton Saints at Franklin Gardens.
Throw James Hume into the mix as well, he is only 23 after all, but he has been consistently good all season. So good, he is banging hard on Andy Farrell’s door to be given the chance in the green jersey.
Baloucoune has already broken into the Irish squad and one expects both he and Hume will not be far away from the match-day 23 during some round of the upcoming Six Nations.
Mike Lowry picked up the Heineken star of the match award against Saints having put in one of his best displays this season. Many are calling for him to get a chance in the green jersey, and McFarland confirmed he is on Farrell’s radar, but size may still go against the in form Lowry. Inclusion in the extended panel, however, is merited.
Doak continues to perform strongly, making his first European start and doing so confidently. Yes, the kicking part of his game needs work on and getting the ball away quicker, but he has all the attributes to fill the void John Cooney will leave, when he does depart.
For me, the rising star is McIlroy. He looked out of his depth in September during the opening United Rugby Championship games. But he has grown in confidence steadily this season and his performance against Northampton made him one of the stand out players.
McFarland has tapped into the young blood and given them their opportunity – they are rewarding him.
These youngsters are at a time in their career when they believe they are invincible and they are able to produce some magic moments.Dan McFarland post Northampton match
They can do it again this weekend when Ulster face Clermont in Belfast in the final pool game by making it four from four and grabbing a crucial top seeding for the knockout stages.
Listen to Dan McFarland’s views and hear from Mike Lowry on our video below.