BBC Sport NI analysts Humphreys and McWhirter assess Ulster's prospects for the 2018-19 season

Dan McFarland
Dan McFarland was released to Ulster by the Scottish RFU less than two weeks before the start of the season

The Latin term 'annus horribilis', meaning 'horrible year' could have been invented to describe Ulster Rugby's 2017-18 season on and off the pitch.

A tumultuous campaign saw two head coaches, Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes, both step down from their positions, while a high-profile trial culminated in former players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding both being acquitted of rape in late March.

Controversy over social media exchanges which came to light during the trial led to the pair's contracts being terminated by the IRFU and Ulster.

This in turn evoked strong feelings among some supporters and outside observers about how the players had behaved or how they had been treated and a pre-match demonstration even took place outside the Kingspan Stadium before one Pro14 match.

Subsequent attempts to ban news journalists from press conferences attracted more adverse headlines, while tensions with the IRFU over player recruitment persisted, with the governing body allegedly blocking the signing of Springbok fly-half Elton Jantjies after a deal had been agreed.

Scarlets game perfect chance to see where Ulster are at - McFarland

The province were knocked out of the European Champions Cup in January and also failed to qualify for the new-style Pro14 play-offs, although a place in this season's Heineken Champions Cup was salvaged courtesy of a play-off win over the Ospreys in May - albeit at a cost as Luke Marshall and Louis Ludik suffered long-term injuries.

A lengthy injury list, which included South African back-rower Marcell Coetzee for all but the first few games of the campaign, added to Ulster's woes.

In June, it was announced that under-pressure Chief Executive Shane Logan was to step down from his position after eight years at the helm, while a number of senior players have retired - Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe and Paul Marshall - with Charles Piutau, Callum Black and Robbie Diack moving on to pastures new.

Now however, with new head coach Dan McFarland having arrived from his previous role as Scotland assistant coach, along with Dan Soper and Payne taking up coaching roles and Will Addison, Billy Burns, Henry Speight, Marty Moore and Jordi Murphy among the new arrivals to the playing group, ex-players and BBC Sport NI analysts Ian Humphreys and Tony McWhirter believe brighter times may be ahead for their former team.

Do you think the events of last season will have a lasting impact on Ulster's fortunes?

IH: "Once the season starts last year's events will soon be forgotten about. Head coach Dan McFarland has arrived from Scotland now and hopefully that will provide Ulster with the consistency and stability that they need.

"A lot of players have retired but Ulster will be hoping they can keep this squad together for the foreseeable future. With lots of young talent coming through and highly rated new coaches in place there is plenty of cause for optimism.

"It may take some time for all the new players to bed in and the coaches to get across their way of working but I genuinely believe Ulster have a bright future ahead of them."

T McW: "Bryn Cunningham has kept a steady hand on things but getting Dan McFarland in before the start of the campaign gives Ulster a chance to get themselves sorted and make a better fist of achieving their goals on both the Pro14 and European fronts. They may also benefit from coming in a bit under the radar this season."

Jared Payne takes up a role as defence coach after retiring from playing
Jared Payne takes up a role as defence coach after retiring from playing because of persistent headaches

What do you make of the appointment of Dan McFarland and the rest of the coaching team?

IH: "Anyone who knows anything about rugby knows that Dan comes very highly rated and he is going to be a very technically detailed coach.

"You don't get to work as assistant coach with a national team like Scotland if you're not up to it and even at this early stage I understand he is buying into the whole Ulster ethos.

"You could see some of Dwayne Peel's attacking ideas coming to fruition at the end of last season, while there are not many players who know the game better than defence coach Jared Payne.

"Dan Soper's appointment as skills coach means he will be able to help some of the young guys he has worked with previously and forwards coach Aaron Dundon is growing into his role and having more of a say. It's an exciting time for Ulster."

TMcW: "Dan is well travelled, experienced and very highly thought of - he knows what he's about and has history of coaching in Ireland with Connacht.

"He may not be a particularly big name but he has a very good work ethic, is a players' coach and can tune into them and make them better players.

"Anyone who pulls on a shirt at this level can play - they are just looking for someone who can give them that edge over their opponents and the consistency to take that next step in their development and career. The appointment of Jared Payne is a key also."

What is your opinion of the new playing personnel at Ulster's disposal?

IH: "Jordi Murphy is a huge addition in the back row and if you take into account that Marcell Coetzee is fit again, he will be like a new signing too.

"The fly-half position was problematic last year but now they have Billy Burns, Johnny McPhillips and young Michael Lowry, while Australian Henry Speight will offer something different in the back division too - he'll be able to use his experience.

"Marty Moore is a proven international player so hopefully he can make a big difference as well. New signings bring a new enthusiasm.

"There could be a bit of transition with young players coming through but if they can keep the injuries at bay, then I can see it being a successful season."

Billy Burns made 101 appearances for Gliucester
Billy Burns (centre) made 101 appearances for Gloucester and scored 304 points

T McW: "The additions to the back division look interesting - Will Addison has a good profile from his time at Sale and Bryn will look to get as much out of Henry Speight as he can in the five months or so that he is here.

"Billy Burns was deemed surplus to requirements at Gloucester but is pretty high profile - his battle with Johnny McPhillips for the number 10 shirt will be an interesting one.

"John Cooney will again be pivotal while of the younger players I think Stewart Moore has all the tools of the trade to be a top-class player - he has a good head on him as well as the necessary skills.

"A lot of experience has gone with the retirements of Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble but the problem is that two of the most experienced backs Ulster have left - Louis Ludik and Luke Marshall - are long-term injury absentees.

"Rory Best may not be back until European competition starts and I think Marty Moore may have a bit of a point to prove. I fear Ulster may be a little bit lightweight in the front five.

In the back row Marcell Coetzee's return will be like a new signing while Jordi Murphy is a real quality player. It is a brave move for him but he had a good series against Australia, will be a focal point for the pack and will look to hit the ground running as a potential leader for Ulster."

Henry Speight has played over 100 Super Rugby games for the Brumbies
Henry Speight has played over 100 Super Rugby games for the Brumbies

What should be Ulster's realistic ambitions for the 2018-19 season?

IH: "They need to look to get back into the Pro14 play-offs come the end of the season as it was a huge disappointment to miss out on those last season.

"Their draw in Europe is not horrendous - I think it will be tough but we have to get back to making Ravenhill a fortress.

"Teams used to come to Kingspan knowing it would be virtually impossible to win on big European nights but over the last few seasons we have lost a few at home so that aura of invincibility has waned slightly.

"With a big crowd in and a full strength Ulster team I have no doubt we can make Kingspan Stadium a fortress again - the kind of place teams don't want to come to."

T McW: "The bare minimum that will be expected will be a top-three finish in their Conference and a place in the play-offs.

"It won't be easy as Leinster and the Scarlets are probably the best two teams in the Pro14 while Edinburgh will be strong and hoping to build on their late charge last season - they have signed extensively over the summer and Richard Cockerill is entering his second year as coach.

"I expect the South African sides to be stronger too a year in as they will have a better idea of what they are up against and have their travelling schedule sorted.

"Racing 92, Leicester and Scarlets make for a tough Champions Cup group and it's going to be difficult.

"As usual Ulster must set their stall out to win their home games and sneak something on the road if they can. The two crux games should be the double header against the Scarlets in December."

Did the departure of long-serving backroom staff Gareth Robinson and Jonny Davis come as a surprise to you?

IH: "There was a lot of shock at the time obviously. Both Gareth (physiotherapist) and Jonny (strength and conditioning coach) have been massive parts of Ulster and both have had huge parts to play in the growth of Ulster over the last number of years.

"Somebody decided it was time for a change so you just have to back them that they have made the right decision.

"We weren't given the reasons for those decisions but in professional sport people come and go - whether that be players, coaches or backroom staff.

"I have no doubt Ulster were in a position to replace them with quality people and when you have leaders of the calibre of Rory Best in the dressing room, and a strong group of players, there should be no lack of leadership, spirit or cohesion."

T McW: "Nobody saw it coming and it all happened very quickly but sentiment doesn't count for very much now and while it was sad to see them go they will be replaced and Ulster will move on without them.

"Gareth was very dedicated to the cause and in many ways represented the heart and soul of the club and Jonny was well liked and respected too.

"The players valued them in the backroom team as they could maybe talk to them off the record and know it wouldn't go any further or could pick up the odd bit of encouragement."

Ian Humphreys and Tony McWhirter were talking to BBC Sport NI's Richard Petrie

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