Just a cursory glance at the Guinness PRO14 table will tell you Ulster have started well, sitting second behind Leinster in Conference A. In fairness, this is exactly the same position they finished the season in the last campaign, albeit in Conference B at the time, but something just feels different this year.
Take Friday night for example. Yes Scarlets were missing some of their Wales contingent but they have been all season, and looking pretty solid at that.
Ulster blew them away at the Kingspan, the bonus point secured in 27 minutes through a mixture of incisive backs moves that yielded tries for Matt Faddes, John Cooney and Robert Baloucoune, to forward grunt, Matty Rea getting in on the try-scoring act.
We’re now of course into head coach Dan McFarland’s second season at the helm, and caught up with him to get an insight into his processes so far.
“Firstly I really enjoyed last season here and the people of Belfast and Ulster have been really welcoming to myself and my wife – we’ve had a really good 15 months or so,” said McFarland, a prop in his playing days at Richmond, Stade Francais and Connacht.
“Somebody asked me recently whether this pre-season has made a big difference to Ulster now that I’ve been here over a year, I think it’s part of a longer process. We spent the whole of last year building and putting things in place culturally on the pitch and I see that as a continuous process, it’s not something that you stop and start, it goes on continuously.
“I think the first thing that happens when you join a club is an assessment of the situation and the context of the situation you’re going into. That’s the most important thing.
“If you don’t understand the context you’re going into how can you facilitate any change? It’s like knowing where you want to go on a map, the first thing you need to know is where you are on the map.
“So for me the first thing to do when I joined was get a really get understanding of the organisation from talking to people, ‘where are we and where do we want to go?’
“After that it was me thinking, ‘what do I believe in?’, and from there I could put things in place, a lot of what I did believe in married up with the things people at the club were telling me.”
It certainly feels that Ulster made the right decision in appointing McFarland last summer, brought in from his role as assistant coach to Gregor Townsend with Scotland, and at a time the province were looking for a new direction with 2006 the last time they triumphed in the domestic Championship.
The 47-year-old, an Englishman who hung up his boots at Connacht in 2006 before coaching in Galway until 2015, also has experience with Ireland U20s, Wolfhounds and as assistant at Glasgow from 2015-2017.
Whatever he’s doing, it’s working, Ulster finishing fourth in Conference B in the 2017-18 season before he arrived, that second place last year (eventually losing in a semi-final at Glasgow) to their stirring start this year.
He continued: “We’ve had a few games where we’ve let in more tries than we’d like. But overall Jared (Payne, defence coach) and the defensive system is in a way better place than it was this time last year.
“The players are now 12-15 months further along than where they were and there’s much better understanding of that system, as a result we’ve had a lot of games where we’ve looked very comfortable.
“That’s a big plus and I think around our attack we look dangerous when we hold onto the ball. We can score points and that’s certainly a positive.
“We are making too many errors that are unforced and we did have a bit of an issue with discipline, which we solved, but overall in terms of our potential and putting things together I’m very happy.”
The head coach isn’t getting carried away with the hype then, but what lies in the future? In the short term at least, it’s a double-header in the Champions Cup with Harlequins, the Kingspan leg up first on Friday, before a thumping looking Interpro at Leinster just before Christmas.
The Champions Cup is of course further evidence of progression, a dramatic last-gasp win at Bath followed up by a power pack performance to overcome Clermont Auvergne – McFarland is just getting started.
“I still think our set-piece is not the finished article. Lineout wise we can be better, more efficient about what we do.
“We’ll get progression through mauling and maul defence in training. Scrum wise we have young props like Eric O’Sullivan and Tom O’Toole, they’re young players that have performed really well over the last 18 months.
“That’s what I really like, we are a team that prides itself on being competitive in every situation but I think the overriding thing this season for me is the mentality to grow.
“The support staff have been amazing in terms of developing ourselves as a group and also as individuals.
“We want guys to grow and get better, as an organisation that’s the only way we’re going to be sustainable.
“We’re not in the business of spending huge amounts of money to create great teams – we’re about growing a team from what we have already.”
Cardiff City Stadium will play host to the 2020 Guinness PRO14 Final on June 20 as one of the most exciting days in the club rugby calendar comes to Wales!
General sale tickets are available from http://bit.ly/PRO14Cardiff2020 and prices start at just £13 for concessions and £26 for adults (subject to booking fees), that’s a 15% early bird discount. Family ticket (2 adults / 2 children) prices begin at £64 and fans are encouraged to buy early to get the best value tickets.