Ulster are on the right track

PADDY WALLACE has backed up Neil Best’s criticisms of the Ulster set-up in years gone by but insists that standards off the field have improved immeasurably since the flanker’s departure.

Bets spent six seasons at Ravenhill before joining Northampton in 2008 and claimed recently that the set-up in Belfast “paled in comparison” to what was available at Franklin’s Gardens.

“Newforge, where we train, has been developed since Neil’s day,” said Wallace. “I read the article and he was pretty much spot on. We did train in a small gym with small physio facilities and that has all been changed with a state-of-the-art gym. The physio facilities are much improved. We have two full-time physios there.

“We use Jordanstown the odd time, which is an indoor facility. Things have changed in the two years since Neil left and they had to change in order for Ulster to improve. We are slowly getting there. We are probably still a bit off the likes of Northampton who have huge budgets to play with but Ulster are on the right track.”

Best had told a Sunday newspaper that, during his time at Ulster, the gym measured “about 15 foot by 20 foot” and that the physio room was “two plinths in a six-foot by eight-foot room with one physio and one coming in part-time”.

In truth, Ulster haven’t had to look across the Irish Sea to see thing being done on a bigger and better scale. Since their Heineken Cup triumph in 1999, the province has been living in the growing shadow of Munster and Leinster.

Both have made a habit of signing big-name players, from either side of the equator and Ulster have only been able to look on enviously as world-class players – two World Cup-winning Springboks included – moved in down south.

“Winning helps that,” said Wallace. “If you are reaching the quarter-finals, semi-finals or finals you are reaping the rewards of that, the money that comes into your club, and you can then go out and attract the better players.

“We are fighting hard and we would love to be able to attract bigger names but, at the moment, we have to do the best with what we have and I think we are doing that.”

After years of stagnation, things may be looking up. Brian McLaughlin took over as coach during the off-season and, unlike previous years, Ulster will be making their initial bow in Europe this season – against Bath on Friday – on the back of some encouraging Magners League form.

Their last two games, against Connacht and Scarlets, produced bonus-point victories and they will need the confidence that brings in an unenviable Heineken pool that also includes Edinburgh and Stade Francais.

“We have a number of targets this year,” said Wallace. “We are moving into a new comp now with the Heineken and that has been one of our goals from the start of the year, as it has been in many previous years, that we want to progress from our pool.

“We are going into the Heineken Cup this year in better form than we were in previous years so that ambition will probably have a bit more weight behind it this year. We are very ambitious and we obviously have to start winning our home games. It will be a tough one, no doubt, against Bath on Friday.”

Wallace spoke positively about how there is a better attitude among the playing staff this season and how the new management team was willing to ignore things like age or reputation when deciding the composition of their first XV. Another major step forward has been the collective fitness levels.

“I can speak personally,” said Wallace. “On my second day back we were taken to Barnetts Hill, a very steep hill in Belfast about 300 metres long, and I vomited about 14 times. So that sort of set the scene for me. Guys had been at that for two weeks before I came back.

“I had had a lengthy break from the game because of my head injuries last year so I probably wasn’t going into pre-season as fit as I had in previous years so it was certainly a wake-up call. It was great to see the guys out there working so hard.”

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