Ulster captain Johann Muller insists his side are a better team this year thanks to a blend of youth and experience despite sitting sixth in the RaboDirect PRO12.
The Irish side have failed to match the consistency of performance which led them to a play-off semi-final last season and have lost their last two games against Leinster and Connacht.
But Brian McLaughlin’s men have a Heineken Cup semi-final against Edinburgh to look forward to on Saturday with a chance to make the final for only the second time – their last visit being the 1999 win.
And Muller claims the emergence of youngsters such as 21-year-old winger Craig Gilroy to back up the older warhorses has put Ulster in a good place.
“The young players really have come on,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “Also the internationals – like Rory Best and Stevie Ferris, Tom Court, Paddy Wallace – have emerged more and more as leaders and that is good for everybody.
“The whole squad benefits from having guys who have played in a lot of big matches alongside others who are very good players but are less experienced. Ulster have a good balance of experience and youth.
“It has been great – the intensity of the training in recent weeks was probably at the highest since I have been here.
“It has been a rebuilding project but we know the job is far from done.”
Despite their patchy RaboDirect PRO12 form Ulster have provided some glittering European performances this year – led by the indomitable Muller.
The 31-year-old has taken to his leadership role with ease and insists it is his duty as captain to control his – and his team’s – emotions to channel a performance on the field.
“Experience is very important,” he added.
“Your team leaders have to make sure that the squad is relaxed and focused on the job ahead and not worried or thinking about anything other than what’s going to happen between the four lines.
“It’s just about enjoying the occasion. As captain I just try to be as calm and relaxed as possible and make sure that we keep on doing the things that have been successful in the past.”