Ulster’s starting team in South Wales last Friday night contained no fewer than ten native sons…..writes Peter Jackson.
Before they finished extinguishing the embers of the Dragons’ fire, five more had come off the bench to contribute towards another impressively productive evening’s work.
By Monday morning, the RaboDirect PRO12 leaders had played eight matches and won the lot – the only team in any of the three major European Leagues to negotiate the first two months of the season without losing.
Toulon almost managed it in France, only to be beaten once, by Toulouse.
Ulster, therefore, stand alone as the team to beat. Six of the seven behind the scrum at Rodney Parade are all Ulster born and bred – Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Craig Gilroy and Paul Marshall.
The exception, Ruan Pienaar, marked his belated first RaboDirect PRO12 appearance of the season with another of those exceptional performances which have become the norm.
Ulster’s reunion with the multi-dimensional Springbok consolidated their position at the top, the latest win decorated with six tries to follow the seven against Cardiff Blues on their last Welsh visit the previous month.
It was some way of reminding everyone else, not just in the PRO12 but those with serious ideas about conquering Europe, that they ain’t seen nothing yet.
Of the run-on XV at Rodney Parade, only Pienaar and the New Zealander Nick Williams were non-Irish qualified.
It would have been three but for the injury which sidelined Johann Muller and gave Lewis Stevenson from Ballynahinch the chance to lock the scrum with Dan Tuohy in a pack featuring two other formidable Ulstermen, Rory Best and Chris Henry.
The most inspiring aspect of Ulster’s winning start is to be found in the advent of a new generation of home-spun players as spearheaded by Iain Henderson, a lock-cum-back row who was playing schools rugby for Belfast Royal Academy barely two years ago.
Injuries, not least to the thunderous Stephen Ferris, enabled the new boy to an immediate impression.
Not for nothing does Allen Clarke, in his first season as elite performance development manager of the Ulster Academy, describe Henderson’s rise as ‘meteoric.’
No wonder Ireland took him to the Junior World Cup earlier in the year and he’s still only 20.
Paddy Jackson, a prospective Ireland stand-off if ever there was one, is the same age.
Others, like wing Craig Gilroy, centre Michael Allen and hooker Niall Annett, all former pupils of Methodist College, are 21.
Another 21-year-old, Luke Marshall, was on the bench as a midfield substitute at Newport.
In addition to serving notice of their intention to succeed the Ospreys as PRO12 champions, Ulster have declared themselves serious contenders in Europe.
Should they emerge from the back-to-back ties against Northampton on successive weekends before Christmas, then the ultimate aim of going one better than last season and keeping the European Cup in Ireland but on the northern side of the border will assume real meaning.
Brian McLaughlin, the head coach who took Ulster to last year’s European final at Twickenham, is now responsible for keeping the conveyor belt going as the province’s Academy schools’ coach.
“There is a fair bit of new quality starting to come through,” he says. “We set a very high benchmark last season. The squad is certainly stronger and if they stay injury-free, then in my opinion the world’s their oyster.”
Ulster, home to Edinburgh at Ravenhill this Friday, are about to have the depth of their squad tested by Ireland’s needs for the autumn Tests starting next week.
Clarke, the former Ulster, Northampton and Dungannon hooker who played eight times for Ireland during the second half of the 90s, rejoined his native province from the Ireland national set-up last summer.
“There is a work ethic within the Ulster squad and a desire to get better which creates a real thirst to perform at the highest level,” he says. “We’ve seen it this season in patches but not over the full 80 minutes as yet. Nobody is getting beyond himself here but, yes, there is more to come.
“In the Academy, we are after players with the potential to play international and European rugby. We are trying to pitch our standards as high as possible. We want players who will be around for the next ten years.
“The goal is to produce people of the quality of John Afoa, Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar from within. That won’t be easy because those guys are world-class. They add so much value to the academy.”
One of the brightest and the best who went through that same Academy, lost his life in a tragic accident on the family farm in September. Nevin Spence lives on in the hearts and minds of team-mates and coaches, not least Clarke.
“I knew Nevin very well, having coached him for two years with the Ireland under 20s,” Clarke says. “I don’t know if you can ever come to terms with something like this.
“You think of that young man’s strength of character and take that to fuel your desire to be like him. “Everyone is trying to add that little extra bit.
“For someone like Nevin to go at such an early age is very hard to accept, a tragedy which is very hard to put into words. He was such a fine young man. I know there are many fine young men but if you wanted a role model for your son that person would be Nevin Spence…’