2019: a positive year for Ulster Rugby and farewell to two greats, Rory Best and Darren Cave
IT was a hugely encouraging year for the Ulster rugby team, who exceeded modest expectations to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup for the first time in five seasons and the last four of the PRO14, only to lose to Leinster and Glasgow Warriors respectively.
The province said farewell to two of its greatest servants in retiring captain Rory Best and Darren Cave, who made their last appearances in Ulster colours in the loss to Glasgow.
However, there is no shortage of talent coming through the Academy ranks, with no fewer than 13 Academy players promoted to the senior team by head coach Dan McFarland in his 16 months in charge.
Of the more experienced players, the form of scrum-half John Cooney continued to soar to new heights in 2019, as always accurate off the kicking tee but also adding a try-scoring dimension and improved defensive qualities to his game.
There are high hopes going into 2020 as Ulster are on the cusp of progressing to a European quarter-final again while they are also well placed in the PRO14 table, sitting in second place in their conference.
However, the year started in all-too-familiar fashion, with little hint of what was to follow, with an under-strength side being thrashed 40-7 by Leinster in the PRO14 at the RDS.
A week later, McFarland's men got back to winning ways with a crucial 26-22 home win over Racing 92, reversing the outcome of the Champions Cup game in France.
A brace of tries from Jacob Stockdale and one from Rob Baloucounce, on his European debut, saw off the previous season's beaten finalists.
That victory left Ulster needing only a point from the visit to Leicester the following to progress to the knock-out stages and they won a tight contest 14-13, having trailed 10-0 at half-time.
Tries from Marty Moore and another from Baloucounce put them ahead before the hosts replied with a late penalty to set up a nerve jangling finish but Ulster held on.
A late penalty try rescued two points from a 17-17 draw with Treviso at Kingspan and the PRO14 continued with a dour 8-0 win at Ospreys and a 54-7 romp over Zebre in February.
Dragons were slayed 28-15 in Newport and Southern Kings beaten 33-19 in Belfast in March as Ulster made it four wins in a row before facing Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final at a packed Aviva Stadium.
Ulster produced a magnificent display against the odds, only to go down 21-18 against the team rated Europe's best.
A Kieran Treadwell try and a couple of penalties from Cooney helped put the underdogs 13-11 up at half-time.
Then came a moment that went on to haunt Stockdale, who looked certain to score one of his trademark solo efforts, when he fumbled the ball when over the line.
Adam Byrne's converted try made it 18-13 before Luke Marshall restored parity, on his first game back from a long-term injury.
Then with nine minutes left, Ross Byrne kept his composure to send over a penalty for the winning score.
Back to the bread and butter of the PRO14 in April, a disappointing 30-7 loss in Glasgow was followed by wins over Edinburgh (29-7) at Murrayfield and Leinster (14-13) in Belfast leaving Ulster facing a play-off with Connacht on May 4 for a place in the semi-finals.
A late Marcell Coetzee try sealed a 21-13 win and ensured a winning send-off for Best and Cave, for whom it was their final game in Belfast after winning 221 and 229 Ulster caps respectively.
A fortnight later, neither player got the swansong they wanted as Ulster were crushed 50-20 by Glasgow in the semi-final at Scotstoun, having been outscored by seven tries to three.
Over the summer, Ulster made several marquee signings with Australian international Sam Carter, Kiwi Matt Faddes and Ireland prop Jack McGrath arriving in Belfast along with Munster fly-half Bill Johnston.
The new season began with a 38-14 home win over Ospreys, then a nine-try 63-26 mauling by the Cheetahs followed by a 42-17 victory over the Kings and a 23-14 success over Cardiff on the team's return for South Africa.
Ulster made it four from five by beating Zebre 22-17 and then picked up a losing bonus point from a 22-16 defeat by Munster in Limerick as they warmed up for another European campaign.
Tries from Rob Lyttle and Cooney and a late penalty from the Ulster scrum-half combined with a last-gasp try-saving interception from Stockdale sealed a superb 17-16 opening win over Bath at The Rec.
Cooney was again instrumental in the 18-13 home win over Clermont Auvergene a week later, his excellent individual try, after Jordi Murphy's first-half effort, putting Ulster 12 points up before a late penalty try rescued the French team a losing bonus point.
Back-to-back games with Harlequins followed and Ulster made it four out of four in sharply contrasting circumstances, with the game in Belfast proving tougher than the trip to the Stoop.
Ulster were 24-15 down with 20 minutes left but Adam McBurney went over for a converted maul try and then, with two minutes left Cooney displayed nerves of steel to land the winning penalty.
In the return fixture, another virtuoso display by Cooney, who scored two tries and contributed nine points with the boot, sealed a 34-10 bonus point win, with Faddes and Tom O'Toole also on the scoresheet.
A PRO14 trip to the RDS was next and it didn't look good for a much changed side when they were 47-14 down after 47 minutes and seemingly staring at a record defeat to Leinster.
But Ulster, fielding four debutants off the bench, rallied superbly after the break, adding four more tries to the brace they had scored earlier.
Angus Kernohan, Faddes, Greg Jones (2), Gilroy and Johnny Stewart all touched down as Ulster went home with a bonus point after a 54-42 defeat.
The year ended in glorious style last Friday night as Ulster crushed Connacht 35-3 with tries from Alan O'Connor, Burns, Baloucoune, Herring and Nick Timoney to extend their unbeaten home run to 18 matches.
Tonight starts a whole new year of Ulster action...