December 13, 2012
Blues skipper Zinzan Brooke lifts the 1997 Super Rugby title © Getty Images
Ulster's win over Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens on Friday night was huge on both fronts for the Irish province. Not only did it cement their spot at the top of Pool 4 in the Heineken Cup, it also maintained their current unbeaten run which stretches to 13 games since the start of the season.
It is a hugely impressive statistic for the Ulstermen with coach Mark Anscombe in his first season in charge of the RaboDirect PRO12 side. With this in mind, this week's Scrum Sevens looks back at some other recent impressive unbeaten starts to a season.
The 1997 campaign was the second season of Super Rugby - at that stage with 12 teams playing - and the Blues were the reigning champions, having beaten Natal 45-21 in the inaugural final of the SANZAR-run pro-tournament in 1996. They had a team packed with household names and some future stars with the likes of Jonah Lomu, Shane Howarth, Brian Lima, Carlos Spencer, Sean Fitzpatrick, Robin Brooke, Craig Dowd, Michael Jones, Olo Brown and Xavier Rush featuring for them.
They opened their defence with a 40-all draw in Pretoria against Northern Transvaal in March 1997 before winning all ten of their other round-robin games to finish clear top of the standings. They then beat Natal (55-36) in the semis before winning the final 23-7 against the ACT Brumbies and ended up finishing the season unbeaten.
In the first season of the Celtic League, 15 teams competed for the title with the four Irish provinces, two Scottish teams and all nine Welsh Premier Division sides split into two groups of eight and seven teams. Leinster were placed in the eight-team group and managed to win all seven of their games - a run which included a 31-9 triumph over fellow Irish rivals Ulster.
After the group stage of the season came to an end, the Irish province took to the European stage and won the first four matches in their Heineken Cup pool - beating Toulouse, Newcastle and Newport twice - before returning to the knockout stages of the Celtic competition. And they continued their winning run with three on the bounce securing the inaugural Celtic League title - a trio of victories which included their 24-20 triumph over Munster in the final.
Such was the primal nature of the Celtic League, the season was over by December and Leinster were allowed to focus on their Heineken Cup campaign. They returned to the pool stage to beat Newcastle but their 15-match unbeaten run came to an abrupt halt in France when they came up against French giants Toulouse. Le Rouge et le Noir prevailed 43-7 with Cedric Heymans bagging a hat-trick against a Leinster side that featured Brian O'Driscoll at fly-half.
After securing three back-to-back Super Rugby titles from 1998 through to 2000, the Christchurch franchise were unceremoniously dethroned in 2001 and managed to secure just four wins throughout the whole season. Captain Todd Blackadder departed for Scottish shores and Reuben Thorne was handed the Crusaders' armband.
And he managed to skipper them to an entire unbeaten season. Six of their 11 matches were won by a margin of seven points or less but they finished off the round-robin stage of the tournament with a huge 96-19 win over the Waratahs - the team who finished second in the log for the regular season. The Crusaders were the team to beat heading into the knockout stages and they overcame the Highlanders 34-23 in the semi-finals and then went on to beat the Brumbies in the final 31-13 with Caleb Ralph scoring a late try. Their unbeaten season is yet to be replicated but the Christchurch franchise came close four years later.
The Crusaders revel in their 2006 triumph © Getty Images
While they failed to emulate the team who managed to avoid defeat four years before, the 2006 Crusaders vintage was a formidable side. While they swept all before them on their home turf, their 10 match unbeaten run included victories at the Reds, Chiefs, Hurricanes and a draw at the Western Force.
But the draw against the Perth franchise was enough to derail them for a week and they lost to the Stormers in Round 12. It proved to be just a blip and they bounced back to defeat the Bulls at their Pretoria stronghold and then thrashed the Brumbies 33-3 in the final match of the round-robin season. And the campaign ended in silverware for the Christchurch-franchise with Richie McCaw lifting their sixth title.
While the 2011 World Cup was dominating the rugby-based headlines, Harlequins etched their own place in history with a storming start to the 2011-12 season. They started the campaign with a six match winning run - a group of games which included thrashing Gloucester and a pulsating 47-41 win over Sale - before it was interrupted by the Anglo-Welsh Cup. But that did little to derail Conor O'Shea's men and they won both of their group games and continued tearing up the Premiership.
They then took to the European stage and faced Connacht and Gloucester in their Heineken Cup pool, but again Harlequins eased through those challenges. Eventually it was Top 14 giants Toulouse who ended their 14-game winning streak when they prevailed 21-10 at the Stoop. O'Shea's men bounced back the week after and won 31-24 in France against the Top 14 champions and their first defeat in the Premiership came after Christmas when they lost to Saracens in front of a packed Twickenham.
Ulster's Jared Payne celebrates his score against Northampton © Getty Images
On the face of it, when surrounded with the other unbeaten runs, Toulon's six games unbeaten at the start of the current season is not overly impressive. But then you place that run of wins into perspective by looking back at the previous seasons of Top 14. Clermont Auvergne went five matches unbeaten at the start of the 2011-12 season until Toulouse chopped them down while Castres went three matches undefeated from the beginning of the 2009-10 campaign - Toulon's run was fairly exceptional.
Toulon's six-match winning streak consisted of victories over Perpignan, Racing Metro, Mont-de-Marsan, Bordeaux Begles, Montpellier and Castres but it came to an abrupt halt against Toulouse when they fell 32-9. Coach Bernard Laporte opted to make a host of changes for the match but their XV still included the likes of Frederic Michalak, Simon Shaw and Gethin Jenkins.
Despite Mark Anscombe only taking charge of the province in the summer, Ulster have shown no ill-effects - quite the opposite. They are currently in the midst of a 13-match unbeaten run which covers both the RaboDirect PRO12 and the Heineken Cup. Their latest victory came against Premiership side Northampton Saints and it was a performance packed with power and sleights of hand.
A bonus point win at Franklin's Gardens is certainly not to be sniffed at and they will look to make it 14 matches on the trot this weekend when the Saints travel to Ravenhill. If they overcome Jim Mallinder's men then it will not get any easier as their next two matches are against their Irish rivals Leinster and Munster. The team looks destined for silverware this season but they will need to avoid any mid-season jitters if they are to to cash in on their impressive start.
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