by Brendan Cole
Ulster enter this year’s Magners League needing to end a period of mediocrity but having at least taken some steps towards doing so.
Heineken Cup champions in 1999, and Magners League winners in 2003, they have largely watched from the sidelines as Munster and Leinster have carved legacies over the last six or seven years.
That trend toward mediocrity had little chance of being reversed in recent years.
Ulster have produced a reasonable amount of talent since Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe came on the scene and the province now boast Ireland’s most formidable forward in the shape of Stephen Ferris. But they have not produced the same volume of Heineken Cup quality players as Leinster or Munster.
For a variety of reasons, the non-Irish recruits have also often left something to be desired. Leinster and Munster brought in Christian Cullen, Doug Howlett, Rocky Elsom and Isa Nacewa. And while Springbok prop forward BJ Botha is not a million miles away from their level, the moderate form of Justin Harrison is an unpleasant memory.
This season, that has changed: bigger money has become available to significantly improve the squad.
Ruan Pienaar - Tri-Nations Test class half-back
The most important recruit is probably South Africa’s Ruan Pienaar. While not everyone will agree with South African national coach Pieter De Villiers’ stellar rating of the player, there is no doubting that he brings huge class and ability.
As a Tri-Nations Test class half-back - he leaves the Boks squad in early September - he should be capable of doing serious damage at Magners League level and unlike the top Irish players, his availability for Ulster will be excellent.
The intention is to play him at scrum-half – with Isaac Boss switching to Leinster – inside Ulster’s pair of young out-half options Niall O’Connor and Ian Humphreys, one of whom will surely establish himself as the main man at 10 over the course of this season.
The pack has also been beefed up. Johann Muller and Pedrie Wannenburg, both also South African, will be expected to add steel to the heart of an already quite impressive unit.
Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli are currently out injured but plenty of sides will struggle to put out full strength XVs early in the season.
For the likes of Ferris, Trimble, Paddy Wallace, Rory Best, Humphreys and O’Connor the hope is that the addition of more South African power, and genuine class in the shape of Pienaar, will mean a proper Magners League challenge can be mounted.
Knockout European rugby for the first time in over a decade must also be on the agenda.