BBC Sport NI analysts Field and McWhirter assess Ulster's prospects for 2016-17

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Ulster coach Les Kiss is optimistic his side can challenge for silverware

Ulster begin their bid to secure silverware for the first time since 2006 with a home Pro12 game against the Dragons at Kingspan Stadium on Friday 2 September.

BBC Sport NI analysts and former Ulster players Tony McWhirter and Maurice Field assess their prospects of ending their 10-year trophy drought.

What impact do you expect Ulster's new signings to make?

Charles Piutau impressed in Ulster's pre-season friendly with Northampton in Belfast
Charles Piutau impressed in Ulster's pre-season friendly with Northampton in Belfast

T McW: "Charles Piutau speaks for himself in terms of the quality he brings from New Zealand and what he did for Wasps last year while on loan.

"I know there was quite a lot of interest from Wasps with regard to him staying there so Bryn Cunningham and everyone else at Ulster will be relieved he stuck to his agreement.

"Marcell Coetzee is again a proven world class player. He will add a big, big dynamic to the Ulster pack in terms of replacing Nick Williams. He is having a second knee reconstruction so from an Ulster point of view, everyone is hoping he gets fit soon.

"Prop Rodney Ah You has a point to prove after moving from Connacht. With Wiehahn Herbst missing the opening five or six weeks of the season through injury, and Ricky Lutton also out, that should give him a chance to impress and make his name.

MF: "The absence of Coetzee until January is a big blow, but Piutau showed the qualities he has while playing at Wasps and it would be good to get the chance to see him as an attacking full-back.

"The only thing I would question is whether it is a 15 that we needed, or perhaps a 10 or 9 to cover for Paddy (Jackson) or Ruan (Pienaar) may have been preferable.

"With injury problems mounting before the season has even properly begun, strength in depth among the forwards in particular may be an issue.

"If you don't have a strong pack to front up, it doesn't matter if you have seven Charles Piutaus in the back line, because you will never get to see the best of him."

What do you think will be the dynamic of the new joint captaincy of Rob Herring and Andrew Trimble?

Rob Herring
Rob Herring will lead Ulster alongside Andrew Trimble for the upcoming season.

T McW: "It's an interesting one. Andrew Trimble wears his heart on his sleeve, leaves nothing on the pitch and is a crowd favourite. He deserves this chance as he has been at Ulster his whole career and I think it is a job he will grow into.

"I think the dynamic will work well, the trouble is if they are both selected for Ireland.

"Rob Herring has matured as a player and I was really impressed with him last year. His line-out throwing is as good as anyone and he gives you a lot around the park. With Rory coming to the end of his career, the captaincy may be a bit of bait to keep him here as I imagine there is quite a bit of interest from other clubs."

MF: "I find this set-up quite strange as both Andrew and Rob will have aspirations of being involved with Ireland for the periods surrounding the autumn internationals and the Six Nations, with Rob possibly deputising for Rory Best at hooker with Ireland.

"That could rule them both out of half the Pro12 games. I understand that they are both senior leaders in the team but if they are away representing Ireland where does that leave the captaincy?"

What do Ulster need to do to take that next step from being perennial 'nearly men' to achieving silverware success?

T McW: "They have strengthened the squad in some regards. Personally I would have liked them to sign a couple more forwards. The problem is they are allowed two or three marquee signings and the rest have to be Irish qualified.

"The academy is starting to produce, but generally it is the outside backs who come through quickly. It takes another two or three years for the forwards to mature physically and get more game time. If the players aren't out there then there is no point spending the money on them.

"The problem for me is the way that they have started in recent seasons. They have frittered away points that have come back to haunt them at the end of the year, meaning that they have ended up with away semi-finals.

"Les Kiss will be looking for consistency, by winning at home with bonus points and getting a couple of early victories on the road, which will stand them in good stead."

MF: "There is no doubt Ulster have the desire and ambition, although there is a slight question mark over their physicality and a lack of dynamic impact off the bench.

"Our initial starting XV is strong but have Ulster the replacements to come off the bench and make an impact that the other top teams posses.

"Consistency of selection and belief are key, while the future looks bright from a youth point of view with a lot of good young talent coming through."

Ulster European Cup 1999.
Ulster's most famous success was their 1999 European Cup victory over French side Colomiers. Their last taste of silverware was winning the 2006 Celtic League.

What do you make of the province's chances of progressing from their Champions Cup pool?

T McW: "It will be tough. Two French teams and Exeter, who have just got better and better over the last couple of years. Clermont have the best home record in the competition and then Bordeaux, who are the new kids on the block and have been getting better year by year. Ian Madigan going to Bordeaux adds a bit of spice to his competition with Paddy Jackson as two of Ireland's fly-half options.

"They have to make sure that the last home game at home to Bordeaux doesn't become a dead rubber and they still have something to play for. You must win your home games, look to pick up an away win and some bonus points along the way. If you do that, you give yourself a chance.

"If you lose any of your home games, realistically you have no chance.

"The Irish internationals have to continue their good form and drag the Ulster team kicking and screaming forward this year. The Ulster performances have to go up a level if they are to challenge for silverware."

MF: "Progression to the quarter-finals in Europe is going to be a major, major ask but if they stay relatively injury-free, have a bit of luck along the way and get some momentum going, then who knows?

"You would expect to get a good result against Bordeaux in the opener, then it will be a big game at home to Exeter the week after. Clermont have not been beaten in nearly three years in their own stadium so they will be very tough.

"The reality is that the top European clubs all have squads containing 25 to 30 internationals. That is down to pure finance and Ulster can't compete with that."

How much pressure is there on Les Kiss and his coaching team to produce this season?

T McW: "This is Les's first full year. He has had a good six to nine months to get his feet under the table and put his ethos and game plan across. There is always pressure on Ulster as they are seen as a successful side. The problem is that they have been the bridesmaid team for the past number of years.

"Ulster must win the tight games - it's important that they don't lose matches by the odd point here or there.

"If they want to challenge for silverware, realistically they are going to have to finish first or second in the league. That's not going to be easy.

Les Kiss
Les Kiss took over the reigns as Ulster's Director of Rugby after the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

MF: "For Les and the coaching staff, it's all about working with the experienced players and nurturing the young boys coming through.

"Ulster's disciplinary record let them down last season, but Les addressed that.

"It will be his first full season and he is obviously going to come under scrutiny. There is always pressure. If the product fails, then the ticket sales and crowds go down and with that the revenue to bring in players."

Who will contest the Pro12 semi-finals?

T McW: "I can't see there being a massive change so you would expect Glasgow, Leinster and Ulster to be well up there. Munster are the ones everyone will be looking to to turn things round after a disappointing season.

"The Welsh sides have a bit to do bur Cardiff have recruited quite well, so they may be worth watching.

"The big question is whether Connacht can carry on in the same vein as last year and I think they probably can. They haven't had a big turnover in terms of playing personnel, apart from the loss of Aly Muldowney, who has move to Grenoble and will be a big loss."

MF: "You would like to think Ulster have the ability, along with Leinster, and Glasgow, who will want to send Gregor Townsend out on a high before he moves on to become Scotland coach.

"I think Connacht will continue to grow, the Scarlets won't be too far away, and Edinburgh will be in contention too."

Tony McWhirter and Maurice Field were talking to Andy Gray and Richard Petrie.

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