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Signings are encouraging for Ulster

Stephen Watson | 16:53 UK time, Tuesday, 14 September 2010

At last. The most high-profile signing in the history of Ulster rugby arrives in Belfast this week.

Fans should be able to catch a glimpse of South African international Ruan Pienaar at Ravenhill this weekend as he samples his first Friday night experience.

The 26-year-old won't be in a white shirt just yet - his playing debut will more than likely to be the following week away to Connacht.

Pienaar is a utility back and can play play either scrum-half, fly-half or full-back but I am told he is coming to Ulster to play exclusively at number nine.

<em>Ruan Pienaar is regarded as the most high-profile signing every made by Ulster</em>

The signing of South Africam scrum-half shows Ulster have big ambitions

"Ruan who?" was the jocular response from the player who presently holds the shirt, when I asked him about Pienaar's imminent arrival.

Paul Marshall, who has made a fine start to this season, will no doubt continue to progress and gain valuable experience by working alongside the Springbok.

Pienaar is undoubtedly one of the most naturally gifted young players in the world game, but he may not turn out to be Ulster's most important signing this year. I think that player is Stevie Ferris.

The Irish international is one of the most in-demand players in the game and his decision this week to spend another two years with Ulster signals his intent to win silverware with his own province.

Ulster Director of Rugby, David Humphreys, said this week that Ulster's long-term future would be built on local players and with young talent coming through like Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy, and Adam Macklin, who are waiting to make the breakthrough to the first team, the future does looks bright.

But will we see short term success this season? I think there are early signs for optimism.

Ulster have turned in, by their own admission, two under-par performaces in the Magners League at home to the Ospreys and away to Aironi.

More importantly, though, they ground out winning performances, and that is something I don't think would have happened last season.

The South African duo of Pedrie Wanneburg and Johann Muller have already made an early impact, as has the return of Tim Barker, BBC's man of the match in the opening game.

I think this current Ulster pack could go on to give any team a run for their money in Europe and be the springboard for Ulster to get out of their group in the Heineken Cup for the first time since 1999.

A formidable front row of BJ Botha, Rory Best and Tom Court - any two from Muller, Barker, Dan Tuohy or Ryan Caldwell in the second row - and what about a dream back row of Wanneburg, Ferris and Robbie Diack? Will it be possible to play all three together? If Wanneburg is back to full match sharpness I think that could be an exciting option.

The point is, for the first time in many years, there is strength in depth allowing coach Brian McLaughlin the ability to rotate and keep players fresh if he wants to.

The same can be applied to the backline. Jamie Smith and Adam Darcy battling it out for the full-back shirt, Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli on the wings with David McIlwaine and Tommy Seymour challenging, Paddy Wallace, Darren Cave and Ian Whitten scrapping for the 12 and 13 shirts, Niall O'Connor or Ian Humphreys at stand-off, and Pienaar at scrum-half.

The Springbok is also a first class goalkicker. Should he take the responsibility and the pressure off Humphreys or O'Connor? Which fly-half should coach Brian McLaughlin select to play with Pienaar? Big decisions to made in the coming weeks, but a nice headache to have.

I am delighted to be anchoring our live coverage of the Magners League games this season and watching the drama unfold from our studio in the new Ravenhill stand. For each match we will have different pundits helping analyse the game.

European Cup stalwarts Tony McWhirter and Andy Ward were our first guests. This Friday night I will have the company of Simon Best and Scotland's Scott Hastings and in future weeks Michael Bradley, Maurice Field, and former Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan will be at Ulster Rugby's HQ.

I also hope to keep you up to date with all the big news from behind the scenes at Ulster, aand at half-time during the home matches my colleague Gavin Andrews will bring you hhis weekly feature. This week he's profiling Tim Barker.

I look forward to hearing and sharing your views on anything related to Ulster rugby.

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