In recent times, a number of Ulster’s detractors have attempted to bury the province. One journalist (the Dublin equivalent of Stephen Nolan) made the ridiculous suggestion that Ulster Rugby should be disbanded. Even the previously infallible BOD weighed in, labelling Ulster Rugby a ‘basket case’ and discouraged Joey Carberry from making the move up North (thanks for that BOD!).
Ironically, the manure heaped on Ulster Rugby last season by the media and armchair pundits has fertilized the soil at Kingspan. As a result, the young squad will develop more rapidly. The much-publicised issues both on and off the pitch have catalysed change at the club from the top down. In a pattern that has become as predictable as the changing of the seasons, Ulster have once again hit the ‘reset’ button, clearing out players, coaches, backroom staff and even the CEO. Once a fortress, the home of Ulster Rugby now resembles a greenhouse – a new generation full of potential but requiring the correct conditions to nurture their development. The start of the season has been a mixed bag. Indeed, the horror show at Thomond Park is evidence that there is a great deal of pruning still to be done. However, there are enough green shoots of hope to stay optimistic. Here is a review of the season so far:
A team United
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, Man United were famous for late goals. When United needed to score a late equaliser or winner deep into ‘Fergie-time’ 1 the expectation that a goal was coming was so great one player described it as ‘like there was an invisible force pulling the ball towards the opposition’s net’. Mental fortitude is a trait common among great teams – Ferguson era United, Clive Woodward’s England team in the 2003 World Cup, the New England Patriots (who last year came back from a 25-point deficit to win their fifth Super Bowl). The list goes on.
Encouragingly, Ulster have shown similar signs of resilience this season (with the obvious exception of the Munster game). Admittedly, clawing back a draw against the Cheetahs isn’t exactly the same as a World Cup winning drop-goal or a quick-fire double in the Champions League final, but they definitely deserve some credit. Although it has been the boot of John Cooney that helped dig Ulster out of a hole on a couple of occasions, it is the collective effort of the team when the chips are down that is most encouraging. Setting aside the obvious fact it would be better not to have to chase these games in the first place, the ‘never-say-die’ attitude displayed by the team on a number of occasions this season suggests a sense of positivity and cohesion among the young squad which had previously been lacking. Ulster must harness this attitude and use it from the first whistle. They won’t get away with mediocre performances followed by late comebacks against better teams.
Indeed, after the 64-7 thumping from Munster it became obvious that Ulster had done well to paper over the cracks in the opening few games of the season. Against a quality team, not only did the cracks appear but the entire shell of the house collapsed, leaving Dan McFarland sat exposed in the bath-tub looking confused and embarrassed. Granted, it was a relatively weak Ulster side sent down as cannon fodder to rest a few players ahead of several important games, however the non-performance showed that this squad is definitely still a work in progress. McFarland must quickly find a towel and cover the shame of defeat with a victory over their provincial rivals this Friday.
The Pack: puddings, prospects and poundage
My Dad used to describe useless players, particularly props, as ‘big puddings’. In totally unconnected news, Andy Warwick has started a number of games for Ulster recently. Fair play to Andy Warwick – for a man who looks like he has been dragged from the pub to play for his local 3rd XV he has done well to win 100 caps for Ulster. Of course, it’s not his fault he keeps getting picked. Ulster’s (lack of) options in this position stand in stark contrast with our feeder club, Leinster, who have two of the best loose-heads in the Northern hemisphere to choose from – Cian Healy and Jack McGrath. If Ulster hope to compete they need to sort out this side of the scrum as a matter of urgency. Schalk van der Merwe has done nothing since he arrived and has taken up a precious non-Irish-qualified spot. Against Edinburgh, Warwick’s replacement by Eric O’Sullivan was a noticeable turning point in the game.
Elsewhere in the ‘tight five’, Tom O’Toole has looked like an exciting prospect – in his opening 20 minutes against Edinburgh before getting injured he was genuinely outstanding. He’s a strong ball carrier and, for someone who’s just out of his school shorts, he has done amazingly well to hold his own against seasoned veterans in the scrum. Marty Moore is yet to come back from injury and will hopefully provide a solid platform in the scum, allowing O’Toole to be deployed as an impact sub. McFarland seems to have found his preferred second row partnership in Henderson and Treadwell who complement each other well – one is a dynamic ball carrier and functions like an extra back-row, the other (Treadwell) is busily working in the ‘engine room’ – the unseen and often unappreciated ‘bread and butter’ work of a forward. Alan O’Connor exudes energy and passion when he is given a chance and, although he isn’t as naturally gifted as others in the squad, makes up for it with his drive and determination. He also deserves enormous credit for reclaiming that all-important restart against Edinburgh which lead to Cooney’s last minute penalty.
The revitalised back-row has been bolstered by Coetzee who has been good with ball-in hand and has given Ulster some much needed impetus. At times he has lapsed in his defence but, having been out for a season through injury, this may be a confidence issue or just some rustiness. The back row will be supplemented further when Jordi Murphy returns from injury and, if he can replicate his form from last season in an Ulster jersey, will be a massive addition to the pack.
Timoney has continued last season’s run of form into the opening few games – he is blessed with pace to burn and the footwork of a centre. However, his greatest attribute – his speed – is in tension with his biggest limiting factor – his relative lack of size. He could add 20-30kgs of mass and look the part of a top-level no.8 but the extra girth would slow him down considerably. Timoney is in the same mould as Sam Simmonds of Exeter, one of the Premiership’s most stand-out no.8s. Simmonds has been overlooked for England selection recently, with his size being cited specifically as the reason. As winter approaches, and the conditions are no longer suitable for fast, running rugby, the light-weight Timoney may struggle to be as effective. Deysel’s bulk could make him a better option to mix it with the big boys when necessary.
The Backs: Ulster’s faith healer, Cooney’s cahones and string theory
According to superstring theory, there are at least 10 dimensions in the universe. No-one appears to have told Stuart McCloskey who gets by with only one.
Every time he gets the ball he takes it into contact and attempts an off-load. Often, this works and appears to be quite effective. However, it becomes predictable and limits the variety in Ulster’s attack. It may be that McCloskey is the new Kevin Maggs, who made a successful career out of running directly into the opposition, battering-ram style. However, modern centres are required to be able to kick, distribute the ball well and generally provide a creative spark in midfield. This keeps the opposition guessing and is much more difficult to defend against. Angus Curtis may be the answer to adding some variety to Ulster’s attack – primarily a centre who can also play at 10 – he has looked impressive at times in the cameo appearances he has made this season. McCloskey better not rest on his laurels as Curtis will be breathing down his neck.
Ulster’s new signing, Henry Speight, arrived with the fan-fare appropriate for an Australian international and he has certainly added some star-dust to the back line. He has shown glimpses of his quality going forward and will add pace, power and experience to the thread-bare squad over the next few months. At times however, his attempts at tackling have made him look more like a limp wristed faith healer than an international rugby player (sadly though, not the type of faith healer who can knock people over).
The self-proclaimed ‘Human Slot Machine’, John Cooney is riding a wave of confidence and long may it continue. Cooney has, as Mick Foley would say, exhibited great ‘testicular fortitude’, slotting kicks at crucial times this season. He will inevitably be rewarded for consistently excellent performances with an Ireland call up for the Autumn internationals. Given that he will be away for most of November, Ulster may struggle without him especially as there is still some concern over his replacement. A scrum-half as small as Shanahan must be outstanding in all other areas of his game, particularly the speed of his passing. Against the Southern Kings he stood looking at the ball as if he was waiting for it to hatch. In fairness, he has since improved but must now start pulling some performances from the top drawer (if he can reach).
Billy Burns looks like a solid out-half. However, is he as good as the previous 10 (he who must not be named)? No, probably not. Is he better than McPhillips? Maybe, just. Is Michael Lowry a better prospect? He could be, but time will tell. Is that enough rhetorical questions? Probably, yes. Anyway, it is good to see Burns hit the ground running – he looks confident and assured and has given a good account of himself so far. He has been largely relieved of his place-kicking duties which takes some of the pressure off and allows him to focus on the other areas of his game. Ultimately, it would be good to see him in Ireland contention but in the meantime his priority will be to retain the 10 jersey at Ulster in the face of stiff competition.
Someone should tell Darren Cave he’s not actually that old. It seems like he’s been on the wind-down for the past couple of years yet whenever he plays he clearly still has what it takes. He’s a reassuring presence in midfield – strong defensively and composed in attack. Ulster would be much worse off without him and it seems strange that he was only given a one-year contract quite late into last season. It’s a young squad and, although a lot of his peers have moved on or retired, Cave still has a lot to offer, both in terms of his ability and his experience. Ulster have just confirmed he’s out for at least 8 weeks due to a fractured thumb sustained against Munster – he’ll be sorely missed.
New addition Will Addison is a tidy player. If he was any tidier he’d be diagnosed with OCD. There’s not really much more you could ask for in a full-back – in his short time at Ulster he has always looked completely safe under the high-ball and hasn’t put a foot wrong. There are already rumblings about an Ireland call-up, and rightly so. It’s early days but, so far, he seems like a class act.
Gilroy’s wonder try against Edinburgh showed his quality – he’s a genuinely great finisher. Historically, he has been criticised for his defence and positioning but his ability to twist and turn his way through defences more than makes up for his perceived failings in other areas. Having just over taken Andrew Trimble as Ulster’s leading try scorer in the PRO14, he is high on confidence and we can expect to see him scamper over the line plenty this season.
The sick notes: “Captain fantastic” Rory Best is set to return this Friday against Connacht. Ulster have missed his leadership and determination on the pitch. No obstacle is too great for Rory (except pronouncing the letter ‘s’). His presence on the pitch will no doubt inspire his team-mates to raise their game to meet his exacting standards. Ulster will also welcome back from injury their most potent attacking threat – Jacob Stockdale. Other notable absentees include Marty Moore (due to return soon), Luke Marshall and Louis Ludik. Ulster seem to get an oddly high number of injuries – the physio room must regularly resemble a scene from ‘Platoon’. Considering the lack of depth in the squad, it is understandable that McFarland will field a weakened team in matches they are almost certainly going to lose (Munster away, for example) as Ulster will need to wrap their big guns in cotton wool to ensure they are ready to go in more ‘winnable’ matches.
In summary, at the start of the season Ulster emerged from last season’s burial pit and took a few stumbling, zombie-like steps in the right direction. They then tripped over and landed face-first in a massive cow-pat against Munster. However, as the saying goes, ‘we learn little from victory, much from defeat.’ If this is true, Ulster will learn a lot this in the next few months. It is how they respond to the rocky patches of the season that will determine the extent to which this young, full of potential Ulster team will ultimately bear fruit.
 the generous amount of time added at the end of a match by the match official, allowing a team more time to score a late equaliser or winner, inexplicably caused by Sir Alex looking at his watch on the touch-line.