Last season

Pro12: Fifth in regular season

Champions Cup: Bottom of pool

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To quote the popular 1993 pop hit, 'Things can only get better'. The 2016-17 was one to forget for Ulster as they finished outside the play-off positions in the league for the first time in four years and were even more disappointing in the Champions Cup.

Les Kiss' side recorded just one win as their interest in Europe was over before Christmas.

Add in Ulster's anger at the IRFU's decision not to renew Ruan Pienaar's contract, and with Charles Piutau to exit next year, and it's easy to understand why supporters are keen to put last year firmly in the rear view mirror.

A new-look management side will attempt to improve fortunes, though the loss of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding is a considerable blow to Jono Gibbes and his backroom team.

The Irish internationals are out for the foreseeable future as court proceedings continue.

The returning Lions and new signings will renew optimism, and consistency will be the key as they seek a first trophy since the Celtic League success of 2006

Management

Now in his second year at the helm, director of rugby Les Kiss has shaken things up in the coaching structures.

Gibbes arrives with huge pedigree and is a familiar face within Irish rugby circles. The new head coach left his role as forwards coach in Clermont Auvergne, a position he held with success during his six years with Leinster  up until 2014.

Leinster claimed three Heineken Cups with Gibbes involved, while Clermont landed the Top 14 and reached the Champions Cup final in his maiden season at the Stade Marcel Michelin.

Former Wales international Dwayne Peel will act as assistant, replacing Allen Clarke, who has taken over as forwards coach at the Ospreys.

Long-serving head coach Neil Doak departs as part of the clear out and is now involved with Queens University.

Players

Whatever way you look at it, a squad minus the services of Ruan Pienaar is a considerably weaker one. 

The South African star had been a hero to the Ulster faithful since his arrival at the Kingspan Stadium in 2010 and especially after rejecting a big-money move to then European champions Toulon to stay three years ago.

The IRFU, however, ended his stay owing to concerns over a lack of emerging indigenous talent at Pienaar's scrum-half position. Dan Tuohy (Bristol Rugby) and the retired Roger Wilson, their most capped player, leave a leadership void, though the short-term signing of Christian Lealiifano is a welcome addition.

Lealiifano’s contract will run until the conclusion of the Champions Cup pool stages and will then return to the Brumbies for the start of the Super Rugby season.

The 29-year-old, who was diagnosed with leukaemia 12 months ago, will provide cover for Paddy Jackson as the frontline out-half, though he has only appeared fleetingly for the Wallabies at 10 over the course of his 19 Test caps.

Prop Schalk van der Merwe arrives from Pro14 newboys Southern Kings, while abrasive forward Jean Deysel is now with his second Irish province in 2017.

Signed on a three-month loan cover for compatriot Jean Kleyn at Munster in January, his final appearance came as a replacement in the Pro12 final defeat to Scarlets. The 32-year-old penned a two-year deal with Ulster after being released by the Sharks.

In: Jean Deysel (Sharks), Schalk van der Merwe (Southern Kings), John Cooney (Connacht), Christian Lealiifano (Brumbies, five month contract), David Busby, Aaron Cairns, Ross Kane, Rob Lyttle, Tommy O’Hagan, Jack Owens (all promoted from Academy)

Out: Ruan Pienaar (Montpellier), Franco van der Merwe (Cardiff Blues), Dan Tuohy (Bristol Rugby), Johnny Murphy (Rotherham Titans), Angus Lloyd (Munster), Roger Wilson (retired), Conor Joyce (Jersey Reds), Mark Best (Jersey Reds), Ricky Lutton, Sam Windsor, Stephen Mulholland, John Donnan, Lorcan Dow (all released)

Pro14

One win in their final three outings - though it did come at home to Leinster - saw Ulster edged out of a play-off position by Ospreys, but their form at times flattered to deceive.

They will look to hit the ground running and will get an early taste of South African opposition when they host the Cheetahs on the opening night of action. They will eye early points on the board with home games against Dragons and the defending champions Scarlets, coupled with two away trips to Italy.

As ever, the festive interpros will draw much interest and they will finish the campaign at home to Ospreys and a trip to Thomond Park on the final game of the regular season.

Champions Cup

Nothing short of a disaster, the 1999 European champions finished rock-bottom of a pool that contained Clermont Auvergne, Bordeaux Begles and Exeter Chiefs.

They were well off the pace in the three away games and the home defeat of Clermont was the only bright spot.

This time around, La Rochelle will provide the French opposition, while Aviva Premiership sides Wasps and Harlequins will be favourites to emerge from Pool One.

Reasons to be cheerful

A new coaching ticket should reinvigorate the squad, something Iain Henderson alluded to pre-season.

"When the rumours [of Gibbes joining Ulster] began around the Six Nations time, the Leinster boys spoke so highly of him. He's big on physicality at the breakdown and set-piece. You saw what he did with Leinster. if he can do something similar with us we'll be happy."

In Henderson, Rory Best and Jared Payne, Ulster have players among the best in their respective positions in the league and will be expected to carry a great deal of responsibility.

After a couple of injury-plagued years, Tommy Bowe will be looking to get his career back on track and that could spell danger for opponents.

Charles Piutau may be leaving for the Premiership at the end of the season. He has been one of Ulster's best players since arriving and will be looking to maintain last year's electrifying form before any departure. 

Areas of concern

Half-back is the most obvious area. With Pienaar no longer pulling the strings and Jackson indefinitely sidelined, Ulster fans are right to be concerned with how the team will go about their offensive business.

Christian Lealiifano's versatility should see him slot in at 10, but the Brumbies man has only won two of his Test caps there and is more comfortable in the back three.

Struggles in the scrum were evident again last year, though this has been an issue for a number of seasons. Against stronger opposition, particularly in Europe, the pack have often come undone. Without a solid and performing platform for the backs, it will be hard for Ulster to remain in the hunt for trophies at the business end of the season.

View within the camp

Iain Henderson

"There are new coaches and players after arriving, and there’s a few guys back from injury, so there is a good buzz within the squad. Everyone is excited at getting back playing and that all creates a good atmosphere.

"Everyone understands that we have underachieved over the last number of years. We have players good enough to win a trophy. We have got to semi-finals and just not performed on the day and that is something we have to get right.

"We want silverware, but we have to build from the start of the season."