His resolve is not to seem the bravest, but to be.
I’ve recently heard Ulster’s away PRO14 semi-final against Glasgow described as a “free hit” for the Belfast side, meaning they have already reached their season targets and anything else is a bonus.
I couldn’t disagree more. Some teams go for years without a sniff of a trophy and this Friday presents Ulster with the chance to reach their first competition final since 2013 – far from being a shot to nothing, it’s a match they must win.
When I played at Ulster we pretty much took wins against Scottish sides for granted, but times have changed somewhat. Only a matter of weeks ago a near first-choice Ulster line-up were comprehensively beaten by Glasgow despite scoring first.
Ulster struggled to get go-forward, struggled at the set-piece, conceded too many penalties and offered too many soft shoulders in defence. For a team that has made fighting for every inch their mantra, they seemed to lack resolve.
The youthful engine room of each team could be key!
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) May 16, 2019
Despite that loss there are sound reasons for Ulster fans to be optimistic. Jacob Stockdale is back alongside fellow Ireland duo Rory Best and Iain Henderson who didn’t feature in Glasgow in April. Having those names alone on the teamsheet will lift the confidence of the players around them.
Ulster have won three on the bounce since the Glasgow defeat, with the Connacht quarter-final win showing they are capable of reversing results that have gone against them earlier in the season.
The Connacht reversal was off the back of a much improved set-piece, something we know was a weak point against Glasgow last month. Most importantly of all, last month’s Glasgow game came only days after a heroic but physically and emotionally-draining European encounter with Leinster. This time the team should be confident, recovered and ready for the Warriors.
Add to that the Luke Marshall factor. Injured for most of the season he only started his first game at Scotstoun in April. Marshall has got sharper in every game since and was instrumental in Ulster closing out the win over Connacht.
Will Addison may have been the early-season star for Ulster, but there is something rather comforting about seeing Stuart McCloskey and Marshall line up alongside in midfield. Tried and trusted, they are as intelligent in their play as they are physical and abrasive.
Ulster’s last two finals have been losses to Leinster in Europe in 2012 and in the PRO12 in 2013, but Leinster are not the Leinster of old and the gap has closed. If Ulster can navigate the tricky Scots to set up a likely final against the Dubliners, the outcome will be far from a forgone conclusion.
After a lengthy injury layoff, @lukemarshall121 has been delighted to get back playing for the business end of the season and be involved in knockout rugby in both the Champions Cup and PRO14… pic.twitter.com/cSBRtv4Kcb
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) May 17, 2019
With my old man in Singapore town this week it’s the first time in a while we will have three generations of Bests nestling down alongside each other to cheer on Ulster. This is a great chance for this team and squad to make a name for themselves, to make bit of history. With a few of them not going to be around next season, they need to step up, believe in themselves and really grab this opportunity.
Nurture your minds with great thoughts. To believe in the heroic makes heroes.
WATCH: Part five of The Academy, the RugbyPass documentary series on the Leicester Tigers
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