Versatile recruits for fresh campaign
On the face of it, six changes from the team which ended last season, with an influx of five newcomers, hardly seems the most seamless of summers. Then again, given the anti-climactic way Ulster finished last season, with seven straight defeats, an infusion of fresh blood was probably required.
Furthermore, their close-season recruits - the overseas duo of Natal full-back Grant Henderson and ex-Wallaby and Saracens centre Ryan Constable, his Irish qualified compatriot, scrum-half Brad Free, another Irish qualified player in former Boland and Blue Bulls back-rower Russell Nelson and prodigal ex-Bedford and Bath prop Clem Boyd - have all been blooded in Ulster's quartet of preseason victories. And as Harry Williams admits, Ulster needed an injection of something different.
"We set out to recruit wisely again. We went for a different blend of player this season, in that we wanted guys who could play several positions. We wanted players who could be more versatile than specialist, because with the European Cup and the restrictions there are with 30 in a squad, you need more versatile players." Among the many factors which undermined Ulster's campaign last season, were the surfeit of injuries, individual loss of form and changing selections which meant they never fielded the same side two games running and used more players, 35, than any of the other provinces.
At the outset of last season, with 50-9 and 26-15 victories over Connacht and Leinster, they didn't concede a try. But subsequently, they garnered only one more win, at home to Connacht, in their next 11 matches.
Yet Williams struggles still to put his finger on what went wrong. "I wish I knew. I could give you all the excuses in the world but we prefer to learn our lessons from last year and just leave it alone, and go with a fresh start."
The lessons from last season? "We weren't competitive enough when we needed to be, and there were a number of reasons for that. The fact that we'd won the European Cup the year before, I think maybe we were bathing in reflected glory."
The season before, a structured gameplan largely reliant on David Humphreys putting the ball in front of his pack and manoeuvring Simon Mason (now at Stade Francais) into three-point range had yielded phenomenal success, but last season opposing teams kept Mason out of reach. Ulster's defence actually held up well enough again until the final two matches, but apart from when they dipped their bread against Connacht, with a half-dozen haul in each fixture, Ulster scored only 11 tries in their other 11 games.
"That was very disappointing," admitted Williams, having seemingly prepared every bit as well and adding some potency in Spencer Bromley and Tyrone Howe. "Certainly our scrum was a bit rocky and that put big pressure on us being able to get ball."
After the flawed recruiting of veteran Fijian Joeli Veitayaki a year ago, the return of former Irish A prop Clem Boyd and the signing of John Campbell, along with the maturing of Simon Best, would appear to have improved matters now. Even so, Williams says that Ulster have to be realistic about the opposition they faced in pre-season victories over a Leicester selection, Coventry, Edinburgh Reivers and Rugby by an aggregate of 143-23. "They were a means to an end. We're into 12 Cup games now."
His opening night counterpart, Declan Kidney, maintains history is against Munster judging by Ulster's experience last season especially. "The pitfalls are certainly there," agrees Williams, "but Declan's quite a kidder. He's no mug. You throw the rule book up in the air when you talk about Munster. They are a dogged, determined group of people who will give us a bejaysus game on Friday night. They'll not be sitting back."
Williams concurs with the bookies making Munster favourites and themselves second favourites for the title, on the basis that the former are a known quantity with a settled side, for whom the narrow European Cup final defeat "will make them even more determined."
Nevertheless, Williams cites a valid reason for believe Ulster's graph is about to ascend again. "There's nobody coming back with any baggage. There've been no World Cups about and we had very few guys involved on the American tour (five of their starting line-up, compared to a probable 10 of Munster's) and the new guys who've come in have blended in so well from day one."
As regards the European Cup, Williams admits that Ulster have a brute of a draw, in which their priorities are to win their home games