Not many people would have anticipated Ulster to have made the Champions Cup quarter finals and be preparing for a Guinness PRO14 semi final when making their predictions at the start of the season.
Rewind a year and Ulster were gearing up for match against the Ospreys to qualify for the Champions Cup. A valiant draw at Thomond Park ended hopes of a play-off spot but the damage was done earlier in the season with poor defeats at home to Edinburgh and Leinster and a draw away to Dragons.
This season they’ve finished second in the league with 63 points, just one more point than last season’s perceived ‘worst season ever’. In addition, Ulster have scored five less tries this season despite playing one extra game with another one to come.
Despite the small margin for error, there is undoubtedly a positive vibe emanating from Kingspan Stadium over the last number of months as Ulster gear up for a semi final showdown at Scotstoun Stadium next Friday night.
A fit and firing Marcell Coetzee has been a breath of fresh air for a pack that was continuously outmuscled throughout the last campaign. The South African’s performances have been that impressive that there are calls for Rassie Erasmus to select him for the Rugby Championship, giving him time to prove his worth ahead of the World Cup.
The former Sharks player has played 1474 minutes so far this season and has single handily won games on his own. He’s been monstrous at the ruck, recording a staggering seven turnovers in the home defeat to Connacht and currently sits fourth in the rankings for completed turnovers in the league.
In February Ulster were boosted with the news that Marcell Coetzee would be remaining at the province until the summer of 2022.
Kieran Treadwell came in for some criticism from supporters last season, but his form since the turn of the year has been wonderful. There are perhaps a few too many names ahead of him in the Irish pecking order to merit a call up to the World Cup squad but he will be a valuable asset to Ulster during the international periods.
At only 23 years of age, he’s already made 71 appearances for the first team. Treadwell seems to have established himself in the second row alongside Iain Henderson with Alan O’Connor dropping to the bench, starting six of the seven European fixtures as well as the PRO14 quarter final against Connacht. He’s a big game player and one that gets through a lot of work on a weekly basis.
We’ve lamented for years that the province doesn’t have a forward that’s hated by the opposition but loved by the Ulster supporters. Now I think we have two in the form of Treadwell and Henderson.
Then we have the emergence of several players from the academy:
I’m not sure Eric O’Sullivan could have predicted a better maiden season. He joined Ulster’s academy in 2017 and after making his first appearance against Scarlets at the start of the season, he has chalked up another 24 with Nick Timoney and Treadwell being the only players to make more appearances this season.
Scrummaging was an issue at the start of the season but that was a collective malfunction rather than the fault of O’Sullivan’s. It has shown improvement, giving Ulster’s backs a decent platform to attack from as shown by this try in the Champions Cup match against Scarlets in December.
While he only ranks 12th for carries in the side, his main strength has been able to provide a delicate plus one pop pass. This not only commits a number of defenders but also creates a bit of space for the recipient allowing the receiver (most likely a back row player, McCloskey or Henderson) to steal a few yards, putting Ulster on the front foot and creating momentum.
In a year where Ulster have largely been without Craig Gilroy, where Rob Lyttle missed the first half of the season and Jacob Stockdale has been tied up with Ireland duties, Robert Baloucoune could not have timed his strong performances any better.
He made his debut against the Dragons at the end of October and looked more assured in defence than in attack. For me, it’s his defensive performances that have stood out, particularly in the big games. He always seems to make a great read to hit the opposition behind the gain line and has the pace to recover if a mistake is made.
Offensively he’s been strong too, contributing six tries including a stunning score against Edinburgh and a match-winning touchdown against Leicester Tigers.
Ulster have a tough ask against arguably the form side in the league next Friday night at Scotstoun. Having been comprehensively beaten out of the park by Dave Rennie’s men at the start of April, Dan McFarland and Ulster have a point to prove.
Glasgow are favourites and deservedly so, but if Ulster can muster a performance similar to the calibre of the one in the Champions Cup quarter final then they stand every chance of making the final for the first time since 2013.
Regardless of the result however, I think this has been a highly successful season for Ulster Rugby and one that can be built upon.