Ulster Rugby vs Munster

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL LOOK around Kingspan Stadium today and you’ll see a lot of very colourful garb discovered under the tree on Christmas morning.

superb prop forward signing from South Africa, for regular front row outings. Nick Williams was, well, Nick Williams, creating his special kind of rugby havoc in opposition defences, while Roger Wilson and Robbie Diack went about their business with an authority and commitment which sometimes can be taken too easily for granted. The leagues’s most threatening backline sparked consistently, Darren Cave making an unanswerable case to Joe Schmidt at centre, while Jared Payne was confirming why he would be one of the first names on the Ireland World Cup starting 15. And the emergence of Stuart McCloskey, a clever, powerful midfielder with pace to burn, afforded Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe the time, space and ball to keep the try-count rising. Trimble’s foot injury would be a blow, to the Ulster and Ireland sides, and to this most hardworking and committed of backs, but the depth of Neil Doak’s squad meant the drive towards a PRO12 semi- final and what could be a very special Final at the Kingspan was apparently irresistible. Ulster gave its supporters a real roller-coaster ride, but right to the penultimate weekend of the season the prospect of silverware, so much coveted in the playing squad, was alive and thrillingly enticing. Glasgow, and perhaps a poor decision here and there, meant there was no ideal climax in Belfast, but – at a time when we reflect and certainly look forward – it was a campaign which was always compelling, full of debate, dotted with controversy, and surely encouraging. Now midway through the season, a New Year has been born. With it comes the revival of ambition, and there is real evidence that the squad – with Les Kiss in charge of the coaching team now – is fuelled with justified confidence. As fans we can be a fickle bunch, but we want what everyone in the Ulster structure craves: success! That astonishing Kingspan night when Toulouse was humiliated seemed to strengthen the faith in the stands and on the terraces, and though expectations remain demanding the determination and ability of these players to deliver cannot be questioned. And the future is being fashioned in front of our eyes: Kyle McCall and Alan O’Connor have stepped into the pack for big games and flourished, Rory Scholes is pressing hard for a spot on the wing,

It’s been a season of giving and receiving, and like some of what’s been worn, it does make you wonder if there really was festive goodwill involved in some purchases! But even those of us who too easily claim to be in the ‘Bah! Humbug’ brigade are already looking back at the last few weeks with a warmer glow than usual. For a few important days scepticism was set aside, the good nature and good humour we all experienced allowed us to take a rather brighter view of mankind. And a New Year always affords a chance to recharge, to look ahead with a clearer and more positive attitude. The ‘highs’ and the ‘lows’ experienced in our sporting allegiances in the last calendar year can be put in a more gentle perspective, and a bracing visit to the Kingspan to see old foes Munster take on Ulster is an invigorating prospect. It’s also a time when resolutions are made, and too often they fall by the wayside all too quickly. For supporters, though, the determination to ‘keep the faith’ and to roar on their favourites is normally a promise kept, a weekly renewal of the vow almost an addiction. For Ulster fans, who remain in terms of numbers the most loyal of all in the Guinness PRO12 and in European combat, the last 12 months have been uplifting and, less frequently, disappointing, but few would doubt that they have been interesting and sometimes surprising. Twelve months ago Champions Cup ambitions had dissipated but the league title was very much ‘on’, the side a persistent presence in the top four, who would contest the climactic play-off stages. In the early months of the year Rory Best was in his pomp, Chris Henry was making astonishing strides towards a full recovery from the shock of a sudden, serious illness, and Iain Henderson was announcing himself as very much his own man, but there were quite understandable comparisons being made with the force of nature that was that most athletic and indomitable of flankers, Stephen Ferris. Dan Tuohy was characteristically putting another injury mishap behind him as he aimed for a return to the games’ top table, Franco van der Merwe a constant, reliable ball-winner at lock, and Andrew Warwick, Callum Black, Rob Herring and Ricky Lutton were vying along with Wiehahn Herbst, a



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