Australian Christian Lealiifano has signed a short term contract with Ulster Rugby until the end of January adding yet more sparkle to a star studded squad.
Ulster begin their season in the newly expanded Pro14 against South African new boys the Cheetahs in Belfast on Friday 1st September.
Pressure is mounting to finally turn all their promise into success having not lifted any silverware since winning the domestic competition in 2006. Back then they boasted the likes of David Humphreys, Paddy Wallace and a fresh-faced Tommy Bowe who is still as influential in Belfast.
Nowadays the squad at the Kingspan Stadium is just as affluent, if not more so and despite the vigorous competition in the Pro14 the Irishmen should be making more inroads than their four play-off appearances in the last five years.
Ulster dropped out of the top four last term having been present for the previous four years. Since their last final appearance in 2013 however, Ulster have lost three consecutive semi-finals.
Two of which were narrow defeats to Glasgow Warriors in 2015 and Leinster in 2014. On both occasions the Ulstermen were leading going into the final ten minutes, only to concede late tries thus leaving them licking their wounds until the next campaign.
It’s fair to say knockout rugby has not been kind to Ulster in recent years with several European quarter-finals not going their way either.
It raises the question whether they have the aptitude to rouse themselves for these winner takes all type contests. Recent history suggests not and it is something Ulster as a club need to address if they want to take the next step in their development.
Talent To Envy The League Over
For all their floundering in recent years, it bears yet more frustration when you look at the immense quality the Irish province have. Man for man they probably have the best squad in the competition but there is clearly an element of mismanagement whether that be on or off the field.
Current Pro12 (now the Pro14) player of the year Charles Piutau wore the white of Ulster last term as he set about justifying his immense wages. He bows out of his two year stay in Belfast at the end of this year and will hope to go out on a high.
Even without him though Ulster can rely on Irish trio Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Bowe who have accumulated almost 140 caps between them.
Centres Darren Cave and Stuart McCloskey continue to be models of consistency whilst Luke Marshall enjoyed a breakthrough campaign last year. The 26-year-old is still yet to receive the international recognition befitting his immense talent.
Up front Ulster welcome back both Rory Best and Iain Henderson from their summer exploits with the Lions. The duo continue to be as vital to the national side as they do for Ulster and will aim to continue raising standards in Belfast.
The likes of Robbie Diack and Chris Henry will look to continue performing in a similar vain that earned them Ireland caps. Not playing with the levels of consistency that they or the Ulster coaches would hope but they have opportunity to rectify that this term.
Unwanted Publicity And Controversy
As nothing is ever simple in sport, Ulster have been handed the most unwanted situation possible following allegations of rape against two of their stars Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. The duo are to be prosecuted despite strongly denying their involvement and are not expected to take any part this season.
The IRFU had no choice but to take the allegations “very seriously” and had to be seen to be upholding the integrity of the game.
Beyond the inevitable damage it does to Ulster as a rugby community, the absence of Jackson especially leaves his side short of an elite fly-half option. It’s seen as a possible motivating factor in the signing of Lealiifano who is equally capable of covering centre and fly-half.
Piecing It Together – Les Kiss
Now into his third year with Ulster after several spells as assistant with both Ireland and South Africa, Les Kiss knows he has all the pieces of the jigsaw. His task now is how does he put those pieces together.
The competition, especially from fellow Irish sides Munster and Leinster, makes the Pro14 one of the toughest to win. The trouble for Ulster is that, for all their talent, the club lack somewhat of a winning culture. At club level at least, few of those present in the Ulster squad are accustomed to picking up silverware.
That lack of experience has often told in big games over recent years. Ulster have too good a side to continue underwhelming like they have done. Fourth place and a semi-final is no sign of progression, it’s a sign of stagnation. Kiss and this Ulster side will not enjoy this talented a squad forever and must make use of it or forever be known as nearly men.
Main Photo Credit: