Former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll fears Ulster lack the necessary “quality” and “steel” in key forward positions to go toe-to-toe with Europe’s elite.
He also believes Dan McFarland’s engine room doesn’t compare to the bulk of the Ulster pack that went close to Heineken Cup glory in 2012.
The likes of Rory Best, John Afoa, Johann Muller and Stephen Ferris packed down for Ulster in a Heineken Cup showpiece loss to Leinster at Twickenham almost a decade ago.
All four amassed almost 225 international caps between them, with Afoa and Muller playing 36 and 24 times respectively for the All Blacks and South Africa.
Ahead of Ulster’s Champions Cup trip to Northampton Saints on Sunday, O’Driscoll told Off The Ball : “If you look at that team 10 years ago, I think that was a very good Ulster team.
“That was a good team and they just missed out on having a little bit of luck to get some success. It does feel as though this (Ulster side) is a building team.
“You’ve seen some youthful players, (James) Hume coming through, (Robert) Baloucoune coming through, (Michael) Lowry starting to put in some performances.
“But they’ve always lacked a bit of steel up front and they struggle. What was great about that team 10 years ago… John Afoa, Rory Best and Johan Muller.
“I think now if you look at their second row – Alan O’Connor, (Sam) Carter, (Kieran) Treadwell – I don’t think there’s anyone that you’d be afraid of in that threesome.
“I know (Iain) Henderson has been in and out and obviously when he’s playing well and delivering for them, but we haven’t seen an awful lot of him in an Ulster jersey.
“And then you look at the front row. Fine for the United Rugby Championship, but when you’re looking at European calibre players or world class players I think they fall short.
“Comparatively to their better team a decade ago they don’t have that same level of quality in some of those grunt positions laying the platform for what has always been quite a nice backline.
“Ultimately they haven’t been able to deliver for them.”
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland
O’Driscoll admits he was perplexed by Ulster’s mindset and tactical approach in last week’s frustrating Interpro defeat to 14-man Munster at Thomond Park.
Leading with a man advantage and chasing a first win in Limerick since 2014, McFarland’s men failed to go for the jugular and conceded a late Alex Kendellen try to lose 18-13.
“When they were 13-11 up they started playing a bit negatively and started box kicking the ball away a lot,” said O’Driscoll. “Nathan Doak kicked a couple of poor box kicks.
“Mike Lowry was the only one that really looked like he wanted to attack with real intent and threat. It felt as though they tried to not lose it rather than go out and win and get the next score.
“I think it’s a bit of leadership (thing) to be honest with you; in pivotal positions people taking the bull by the horns, be it a captain or a leader in there.
“It’s a pretty young Ulster team and a lot of them are just starting to make names for themselves, but it does feel as though a (Duane) Vermeulen or someone needed to step up.
“I know he is new to the squad, but to step up and go ‘right, this is what we need to do, take them through phases, force mistakes, kick to the corner and build on the maul’.
“They’ll be better for their loss but it’s a bitter pill to swallow because they were in a great position to get a first win there in seven or eight years. They really let it slip.”
Ulster, with two wins from two in Europe so far this season, know a victory over Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens will secure a berth in the knockout stages of this season’s competition.