Irish rugby’s pecking order was a very different place in 2006 when Ulster last lifted a trophy, glory clinched at Ospreys via a 79th minute David Humphreys drop goal from distance which clipped the upright on its way over from the 10-metre line.

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Munster, the now annual underachievers, were European champions. Current serial winners Leinster were treading water, unsure whether their brash-mouthed rookie coach Michael Cheika was the real deal or just a puff of very hot air. 

Even their now boss Leo Cullen didn’t want to know, the then second row having absconded the year before to win competitions at Leicester, something he didn’t think his native side were capable of at that time. 

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Darren Cave and Jim Hamilton preview the Guinness PRO14 final between Leinster and Ulster

Then there was Ulster, the Celtic League victors who were never comfortable with the greater expectation their triumph generated. They sacked their league-winning coach just 18 months later and while the ousted Mark McCall went away and forged an enviable reputation at Saracens, the club he left behind burned through a phalanx of other anointed leaders.  

What smothered them were giddy objectives, a CEO who talked boldly of the province becoming one of the best clubs in the world under his baton only for the grandiose project to lack substance and end in misery, the Paddy Jackson/Stuart Olding off-field calamity compounding the repeated on-field failures. 

Enter Dan McFarland to clean up the mess. An Englishman who happily made Connacht his home as a player – via a short stint in France – after big-spending Richmond went kaput all those years ago, he arrived in from coaching in Scotland with a transformative breath of fresh air.

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Inexperienced players became coveted rather than frowned as a nuisance and the confidence this has imbued is taking them places. Michael Lowry, James Hume, Eric O’Sullivan and Tom O’Toole, who all start Saturday night’s Guinness PRO14 decider at the Aviva, are a quartet who encapsulate this progress, McFarland cherishing what he calls a growth mindset, where settling for second best or even worse isn’t an option. 

It’s the sort of psychological mumbo jumbo that had no place in the rough and tumble sport 14 years ago when Ulster last ruled. Back then, it was all ‘don’t show weakness’, ‘man up’ and all the rest of the deflective patter in keeping with that macho era. Now it’s okay to be human, to be open about areas of improvement.    

It was last November in Cardiff, at a PRO14 marking to promote the 2019/20 final that was scheduled to be played in the city’s football stadium in June, when RugbyPass had McFarland elaborate. He didn’t flinch, unlike contemporaries at some other clubs hewn from the ‘tell ’em nothing’ school of media training. “There is a lot of youth in our squad – we promote that idea of improvement and squeezing every drop out of their potential. When they are desperate to get better it creates a really healthy environment.”

Ten months later, with the pandemic having lain waste to plans that the Welsh capital would host a 33,000 capacity crowd, McFarland’s project has arrived at a two-fold moment of truth 25 months into his reign, this league final shootout with Leinster in Dublin followed eight days later by challenging Toulouse in France in the European last-eight. 

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They’re both free shots in the sense that Ulster already won ‘finals’ to get this far, beating fancied Edinburgh with a last-gasp penalty in the league semi last weekend while also emerging from a European pool that eliminated English duo Harlequins and Bath over last winter. 

Now they get to test their mettle where it most matters and they have chosen cannily. As much as everyone loves John Cooney’s transformation, new Kiwi signing Alby Mathewson brought a game-changing tempo off the bench when backs were to the wall at Murrayfield. There is also something tantalising in McFarland having a bench stacked with five former Leinster medal winners, all Ireland Test caps.   

Ulster’s situation room will like embracing this challenge of getting the timings of those introductions correct coming down the finishing straight, the closing minutes of a league campaign which for them started on September 27, 50 weeks ago when they beat Ospreys in Belfast on the same weekend Ireland crashed and burned to Japan at the World Cup. 

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Let’s hope Ulster are capable of asking the type of attacking questions which an anaemic Munster couldn’t and we get a showpiece to revel in. Remember, that shackle-free approach so nearly left them causing a March 2019 upset, a Jacob Stockdale spill over the line ultimately all that separated them from ambushing Leinster in a Champions Cup quarter-final.

Aviva Stadium was jammers that particular evening, an atmosphere that won’t exist for this behind closed doors final due to the ongoing pandemic restrictions in Ireland. But the one constant is that Leinster will have game. They love this league, even though the curious tactic of keeping Johnny Sexton in reserve for Saracens next weekend might suggest otherwise.

It mirrors 18 months ago when Ross Byrne started the Euro game versus Ulster that Sexton sat out completely and it’s a selection gambit Cullen would never have done when he initially picked up the pieces following the 2015 sacking of Matt O’Connor. Back then, he was a rookie unsure of himself, a newbie who didn’t have sufficient trust in the youthful conveyor belt at his disposal. 

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Stuart Lancaster’s September 2016 arrival helped release that handbrake and the rest, as they say, is history, Leinster winning all around them and their squad becoming fully inter-changeable with no dependence on Test players (53 players have been used in this latest campaign). 

It’s no mean feat that the mix-it-up approach has Cullen running at a 77 per cent regular-season win rate, Leinster succeeding in 78 of their 101 league games across the five seasons he has been at the helm. And after some misfiring, they have become play-off clinical as well, final and semi-final defeats being followed by successive titles.

Unbeaten in their last 24 league and cup outings, they are now on the cusp of clinching an unprecedented league title hat-trick. Few will begrudge them if they get there, nailing a dominance that no-one would have predicted 14 years ago when Ulster were last top of the league tree. For sure, Irish rugby is now in a very different place. 

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