An Ulster Rugby fan could have been forgiven for viewing the upcoming season with an air of uncertainty when the first ball was kicked in August. However, before entering into the first mini break of the RaboDirect PRO12, most of those fears will have subsided as Ulster sit proudly at the top of the table, with a game in hand.
Paddy Jackson has so far proved that the absence of an experienced outside half is a trivial matter, as he grows into his role with each game, whilst Nick Williams has answered his critics by becoming arguably the best signing of the season so far. Similarly, Mark Anscombe has quashed any fears that he may not be the man to take the province forward, as he has injected a new found hunger into each of his players. Without a huge turnover in personnel, Anscombe's men suddenly look to have a new found depth. Fringe players now appear to take to the field to fight for a first team place, rather than simply 'filling in' for the more experienced player they are replacing.
A dominant set piece and strong defence have been the foundations of the Ulster game plan this season, and this has been reflected in the province's start to the league campaign. The season opened with an unspectacular win, but a victory nonetheless, over Glasgow Warriors, before a smash and grab effort away to last season's champions, the Ospreys.
Munster then visited Ravenhill, but left with only a losing bonus point after a pulsating affair. Ulster reached the top of the table, and suddenly the uncertainty turned to expectation. Three games in may have been too soon for expectations to rise, but beating three of last year's Play-Off teams, including an away win to the champions, was not to be sniffed at.
However, just one day after the victory over Munster, the rugby world was rocked by the news of the tragic death of Nevin Spence, along with his father and brother. Rugby was cast aside, as the province, and indeed the entire rugby community, mourned the loss of an exceptional talent.
An away trip to Italy to face Zebre would have to wait, as Ravenhill became more than just a rugby stadium. Flowers, flags, scarves and other tributes were laid by fans, and a book of condolence was available to sign, before a memorial service was held at the rugby ground.
Ulster returned to the pitch the following week at Cardiff Arms Park. In a fitting tribute to Nevin Spence, a player who fought for every inch, Ulster took every inch against the Blues, running in seven tries in the Ulstermen's result of the season so far.
Another home win a week later, a 25-0 shutout of Connacht, consolidated the province's position at the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 table. The result ensured a perfect start to the season, and a start that Mark Anscombe's men will look to build on throughout the season.
'Stand up for the Ulstermen' the song goes. Right now, Ulster fans have plenty to stand up for.
Biggest surprise so far?
Having a 100% record after the first 5 games.
Most valuable player so far this season?
Nick Williams, 3 Man of the Match performances already.
Overall season prediction for your side?
Reaching the Play-Offs is a must and I think we can realistically reach the Final.
Going to go out on a limb, I'd say three Irish teams will make the Play-Offs!
Who's going to win the RaboDirect PRO12?
Only a pessimistic Ulster fan could say anything other than the men in white!