Ulster’s seventh and final signing of the summer, South African prop BJ Botha, arrived in the province on Sunday, adding to the quiet optimism currently surrounding Matt Williams’ bulked-up squad.
BJ Botha trained with his new team-mates at Newforge today (Tuesday) and is one of six newcomers named in the extended Ulster squad for Friday’s Magners League opener against the Llanelli Scarlets.
The other players in line for their competitive debuts are back-line trio Timoci Nagusa, Clinton Schifcofske and Cillian Willis, along with lock Ed O’Donoghue and back rower Robbie Diack.
After a poor 2007/08 season, head coach Matt Williams is obviously eager to get his first full season with Ulster off to a positive start.
And despite losing two of their three pre-season friendlies to Bath and Worcester, the men in white, with injuries clearing up, are brimming with confidence for Friday.
“Botha is with us now, we have Rory (Best) to come back and a choice of two or three looseheads,” Williams said, commenting on his options for the Scarlets game.
“Ryan (Caldwell), coming back from hip and knee injuries, was a real plus against Worcester and no one thought he could get through 80 minutes.
“Carlo (Del Fava) and Ed (O’Donoghue) are playing well, (Kieron) Dawson and Davy (Pollock) are playing great while you have Matt McCullough and TJ (Anderson) playing great at number 6 and Robbie Diack at number 8.
“Even looking at just the forwards, we have selection problems which are great…we certainly didn’t have them last season.”
That evident competition for places in the Ulster squad should help them rise up the league ranks and Williams has noted a couple of other improvements in their all-round game.
“Our defensive systems have been much, much better. They’ve worked a lot better than in the last couple of years. Secondly, when we have got our offensive system going it has also worked.
“What we’ve done as coaches is stepped back, given them more fitness and less rugby purposely for a period to pump the conditioning into them.
“Now we are all over teams in the last quarter and that is what we want to do.
“The last bit is that our new blokes have fitted in brilliantly. I didn’t think Ed could play as well as he is playing and Clinton’s turn of pace has caught the eye.
“Ian Humphreys has also done really well. With the young guys too, we now have stiff competition in the squad.”
Ulster assistant coach Steve Williams is also looking forward to the new campaign with renewed optimism.
The former Wales lock worked alongside both Mark McCall and Matt Williams last season and was also in temporary charge of the province after McCall’s resignation last November.
Having enjoyed the highs and endured the lows, Williams is anticipating something of a new dawn at Ravenhill and he has been particularly impressed by the new men on board.
“We had a difficult season last year but I think we’ve learned a lot of lessons from it. We’ve recruited very well, we’re very happy with the guys we’ve signed from a rugby point of view,” he admitted.
“They’ve just added to the group fantastically, probably better than we could have hoped.
“We’ve brought in players across the board, from the front row to full-back. They’ve added different thought processess – guys from different countries and guys from different backgrounds.
“And I think that’s always a healthy thing to have. They’ve brought a different perspective to it.
“To be honest they’re just very good guys, they’ve blended in and have become leaders very, very quickly.”
Ulster finished second-from-bottom in last season’s Magners League but Williams reckons they could find themselves at the business end of the table come May, if they can find that elusive streak of consistency.
“The Magners League is a very open competition. Leinster were very worthy winners last season. It’s going to be important for teams to get consistency and then how you go from one competition to the next.
“How you go from the European Cup and come back to the Magners League and you can’t afford to take two or three games to get back into the swing of it and the same thing will happen with the Six Nations. That’s the nature of a rugby season.
“It’s broken into three or four different sections and you have to be strong in all of them,” he added.