Ulster are a fine team who got into the Heineken Cup final on merit: they beat ASM Clermont Auvergne, Leicester and Munster [in Thomond Park, no less] in the competition, a very worthy set of scalps in any season.
However, their league form was woefully up and down. Despite scoring the most tries of any team in the regular season , they won only twelve of their twenty-two matches and finished a disappointing sixth. Twenty of those tries came in just four matches – wins against an understrength Munster [33-17], Aironi [45-7] and Edinburgh [38-16] in Ravenhill, and a cracking 20-42 win over Edinburgh in Murrayfield – but they still scored a lot of tries in a lot of games; they didn’t have a big twelve-try win over an understrength team in the middle of the season or anything like that.
That they lost so many games in the league and yet progressed all the way to the HEC final speaks of a lack of real strength in depth. This season, when they could get their full team together, Ulster were a match for almost anybody in Europe. When they weren’t at full strength and weren’t tuned in, they were vulnerable to anybody [apart from Edinburgh]. They shipped a heavy defeat in the final that showed that they’re not quite at the top table yet, and they have a new head coach on his way over.
It’s difficult to tell the boundaries of David Humphreys’ power with regards to the working routine of the new coach, Mark Anscombe. Is Humphreys the senior partner, like Conor O’Shea at Harlequins, or will Anscombe be able to put his own shape on the team? How will they play next year? Will they be able to cement their status as a big-time European threat? While the impact of a coach can be enormous, it’s just about pointless to speculate on how Anscombe will do in his first season, so The Mole will restrict himself to a unit-by-unit look at how the playing personnel for next season stack up.
They’re bringing home one of the best backs in the Northern Hemisphere, Tommy Bowe, whose try-scoring feats in this year’s Six Nations suggest that he’s still playing at the world class pitch he hit in 2009 and 2010. Jared Payne, the former Auckland Blues project player of whom so much was hoped before his arrival, will return from his ruptured Achilles tendon to replace the departing Stefan Terblanche at fullback.
Craig Gilroy has had an encouraging second season, scoring six tries in twenty-nine matches [with twenty-seven of those games being starts] – if that’s his second-season slump over and done with, he’s got away lightly! Andrew Trimble  is a senior pro in the side and has been a consistent performer since breaking into the team in the 2005-06 season. His finishing skills have improved dramatically over the last number of years, as shown by the two difficult tries he touched down against Leicester in Ravenhill, but his place is by no means set in stone. Gilroy is a more dangerous runner in the open field, and Tommy Bowe is way ahead of both of them when it comes to an all-round threat. Having depth means leaving some good players out of the starting line-up, and one of this talented back four are going to have to learn that the hard way.
Further down the depth chart are players like Conor Gaston and Chris Cochrane, but there’s a sizeable gap in talent and experience between the four previously mentioned and these two Phoenix Academy players. Somewhere in the middle is Adam D’Arcy, the Manly-born, Irish-qualified fullback who has notched up fifty appearances for the province in two seasons. Payne was intended as an upgrade to D’Arcy in the No15 jersey, and when his early-season injury scuppered that idea, Stefan Terblanche came in as a replacement. With Payne back in action, you get the feeling that D’Arcy is going to be sidelined next season: the former will be in the second year of his residency period, meaning that he’s unavailable for international selection, and if he’s playing well, there’s no reason you’d leave him out of your team. Isa Nacewa averages about twenty-five games per season for Leinster, and Paul Warwick racked them up at a similar rate when he was with Munster – you’d expect Payne to be a fixture at No15 for the bulk of the season.
Simon Danielli is retiring from the game, and the IRFU protocols are essentially making his NIE spot redundant.
After an injury-plagued 2010-11, Darren Cave has had a fine season and has propelled himself back into international contention. Unfortunately his 2012 started off on a bum note, when a hand injury ruled him out of contention for the Six Nations. It’s telling that once everybody got past the panicky “there’s no-one to replace Drico!” phase, plenty of candidates presented themselves for inspection: Connacht’s Eoin Griffen, Munster’s Keith Earls, Leinster’s Fergus McFadden and Cave himself.There are players of a similar vintage to Craig Gilroy bubbling under a few jerseys inside him in Luke Marshall  and Nevin Spence . Spence preceded Peter O’Mahony as the IRUPA Young Player of the Yearand really made a mark last season in Cave’s absence. His impact was lessened this season with more competition for gametime, but again, depth means having good players on the bench, not just in the starting line-up.
It will be particularly interesting to see how coach Mark Anscombe views the No10 and No12 jerseys. Paddy Wallace  only played in fifteen games but arguably had the best season of his entire career. His six games in the Heineken Cup included the whipping of Leicester in January, the home win and tight away loss to Clermont Auvergne and all three knock-out games. In short, Ulster played better when he was in the team. Luke Marshall didn’t really make the big step forward that was expected of him, largely due to injury. He’s a youngster who has played both outhalf and first centre at underage rugby, and while he looks set fair to step into Wallace’s shoes when the latter retires, it’s entirely possible that Mark Anscombe could move him one jersey in and play him beside Wallace as a running outhalf – after all, Pienaar is an outstanding goalkicker.
The hard-charging Ian Whitten is off to Exeter in a bid to get more quality gametime. Exeter are a club on the up, and it’s a reasonable move for him. He played in twenty games this season [starting fifteen] so it’s not as though he was being totally frozen out – he has taken a chance to become a more vital part of a different club. Good on him.
The real key to Ulster’s success will be their outhalf play. It’s all change at outhalf up north; The Mole would go so far as to say it’s in turmoil. James McKinney is on his way to Rotherham, and rumours are rapidly gathering pace that Niall O’Connor is on his way back to Belfast after a less than successful stint in Connacht.
The timing of Iain Humphreys’ announcement that he was leaving for London Irish had all the hallmarks of somebody throwing his toys out of the pram because he was dropped before a big game. There was a bit of a rush to persuade people that it had been in the works for months, but that seems like a half-assed smoke and mirrors [sorry, ‘smoke and daggers’] story: why would you be in discussions to leave your home province when you’re the starting outhalf, they’re obviously resurgent and in contention for the Heineken Cup? It looks to me like Humphreys got the hump when he was dropped for the semi-final, told his agent to put the feelers out, got an offer from London Irish and took it. Pure speculation, but it makes a whole lot more sense.The Mole didn’t drink the Paddy Jackson kool-aid during the U20 Six Nations – he didn’t make our ‘Five To Watch’list, for example – and while he had a decent performance against Leinster up in Ravenhill, it was distinctly of the night-watchman variety. He didn’t get his backline moving, he didn’t really pin Leinster in their own half, he didn’t pose a running threat of his own … he just did a reasonable job of not f*cking up.
There’s no value in slagging off a kid. Jackson might eventually turn into a very effective outhalf, but it mightn’t be next year, or even the year after … or even in four years’ time. He’s twenty years old. He’s a kid. Being thrown into a big game too early can do more harm than good: look at Matthew Tait. People talk callously about letting youngsters sink or swim without realising the extent of the consequences if they sink. A lot of people were getting carried away about Jackson, some of them going as far to suggest that he should tour New Zealand as part of the Irish squad.
Hold up: Jackson made seven starts for Ulster this season and his team lost six of them, four of them heavily.
- 25 Sep 2011 @ Ospreys [L, 32-14]
- 30 Sep 2011 @ NGD [L, 22-9]
- 14 Apr 2012 @ Connacht [L, 26-21]
- 20 Apr 2012 vs Leinster [L, 8-16]
- 28 Apr 2012 vs Edinburgh [W, 22-19] HEC SF
- 05 May 2012 @ Munster [L, 36-8]
- 19 May 2012 vs Leinster [L, 42-14] HEC F
Jackson is lucky in that he can get right back on the horse for the Irish U20s in the Junior World Championships; playing age-group rugby should be a great way to get his confidence back. There’s also the fact that the worst thing that can happen to anybody in rugby has already happened to him: he corpsed on the big stage. That experience is over and done with. Hopefully he’ll bounce back.
There are no such worries at scrum-half. Ruan Pienaar had another absolutely magnificent season and his back-up Paul Marshall was electric, playing in twenty-seven games [with sixteen of those starts] and scoring five tries.
The Mole doesn’t know too much about the politics of the situation, but every club has its own little intrigues. It has been mentioned a number of times on broadcasts that Ruan Pienaar wants to be considered solely as a scrum-half, but who knows if that’s true? The Mole considers that a Marshall-Pienaar halfback partnership is a better use of resources and a better unit than a Pienaar-Jackson partnership at the moment. With a Marshall-Pienaar starting pair, Jackson could be used off the bench with Pienaar moving to scrum-half in the later stages of the game; in other games you could go with the Pienaar-Jackson combo or a Marshall-Jackson combo.
As it stands Marshall is a far better scrum-half than Jackson is an outhalf, and if an Ulster team that is otherwise set up to be competitive immediately is hamstrung by a guy who’s only a ‘prospect’ at outhalf rather than a guy who can deliver the goods, you have to make a hard call. Asking Paddy Jackson to deliver Ulster a Heineken Cup next season as a twenty-one year old outhalf is not a realistic expectation.
Twenty-year old second-row prodigy Iain Henderson marked his Pro12 starting debut against Munster in Thomond with a wonderful try and could well see some serious gametime as a blindside next season. He has been hugely impressive for the Irish U20s this season and is a long-term international waiting to happen, but it’s rare that a twenty year old is strong enough to lock a professional scrum. Ulster will need the cover on the blindside with Stephen Ferris’ injury problems and international call-ups and surprisingly for a province that has always produced great backrowers, they’re fairly shallow at the moment.
There’s certainly enough gametime in the season to accommodate seven good backrows, and Ulster are currently well short of that with Ferris, Henry, Diack, Wilson and Mike McComish the only contracted backrows in the senior squad. Robbie Diack [a surprisingly young 26, and now qualified for Ireland through residency] is a useful player with 80 games for the province under his belt and some good Heineken Cup experience, but McComish has struggled to impose himself since his return from Connacht.
A horrific run of injuries forced the premature retirement of classy openside flanker David Pollock, a player who captained the Irish U20s to the Grand Slam in 2007 in a team that contained Cian Healy, Keith Earls, Darren Cave, Ian Keatley and Sean O’Brien amongst others. With his de facto replacement Willie Faloon moving to Connacht, Ali Birch, the 23-year old flanker, will be expected to produce – he has received limited exposure to date, and The Mole really doesn’t know to much about him … he could hit the ground running, or he could get run over.
Chris Henry looks destined to be more involved with Irish squads next year, which means that a vital piece of the province’s backrow armoury will be absent far more often than he was this term. However, Roger Wilson returns at No8 to replace the departing Pedrie Wannenberg in a like-for-like swap. It will be interesting to see if he receives any international recognition now that he has returned to provincial rugby. The Mole thinks that ship might have sailed, which would be a personal blow for him but a huge boon to Ulster: having a guy like Wilson available for selection to anchor your backrow on a weekly basis is a real plus for the team.
Johann Muller arrived late to school after his efforts with South Africa at the World Cup, but again proved a genuinely charismatic leader and an exceptional line-out jumper. At 31 years old, he’s still at the peak of his powers as a player and is an extremely popular captain. His contract runs until the end of the 2012-13 season, but I imagine that Ulster would be keen for him to stay on beyond that date.
Twenty-seven year old second row Lewis Stevenson had a very productive season, togging out in 25 games and proving an able deputy to Dan Tuohy. The latter had a breakthrough season that has seen him selected for the Irish tour of New Zealand; that he was overlooked for the duration of the Six Nations in favour of the ineffective Donncha O’Callaghan was a real bone of contention for those who felt that Declan Kidney’s selection policy was too conservative and divorced from the realities of form.
Tim Barker  and Neil McComb  had bit-part roles this season: Barker played in nine games [starting three] and McComb played in five [starting two]. Those sort of numbers suggest that you’ve got two guys hired to do the job that one guy could do. Even then, five starts and nine sub appearances isn’t a big ask.
Rory Best is every bit as important to the Ulster side as Stephen Ferris. Ferris breaks off the barn-storming runs and the exocet hits, but best is simply a rock. He’s durable, sensible, extremely hard-working and a vital part of their scrum and line-out. Besty is not a flashy hooker [and yes, hookers can be flashy players – think of Keith Wood] but is more in the mould of the great Rafa Ibanez: an under-rated footballer, an understated leader and as tough as an old boot. He will be the mainstay of this Ulster side for the next three or four years – he’s preternaturally grizzled and is surprisingly only twenty-nine years old.
Declan Fitzpatrick is another who has been called up to the Irish squad to tour New Zealand, and it will be interesting to see how his scrummaging holds up against a highly experienced loosehead like Tony Woodcock. John Afoa had an exceptional game in the loose in the final but was unexpectedly put under severe pressure by Leinster’s Cian Healy at scrum time. Healy looks like a player who is on path to be one of the very best looseheads in the world [he has 30 caps and three Heineken Cup winner’s medals at just 24 years old] but it was a little bit of a surprise to see Ulster lose ball against the head. Maybe the suspension and the layoff that it entailed was more destructive than it seemed?
On the other side of the scrum, the unfortunate Tom Court broke his thumb and is out of contention for the tour to New Zealand. However, Ulster have the makings of a very fine young front row unit in Paddy McAllister , Niall Annett  and Adam Macklin . Annett was a highly distinguished captain of the Irish U20s and rang up a whopping eighteen starts in green over two years. Andy Kyriacou’s term with the province is over [he’s moving to Cardiff Blues], so Annett will be pushing Nigel Brady hard for gametime. He has outstanding pedigree and was a regular try-scorer in international age-group rugby, so The Mole is really looking forward to seeing how quickly he adapts to the physicality of professional front row rugby.
McAllister was promoted to start one of Ulster’s Heineken Cup games against Aironi, and is a player who could very conceivably challenge Tom Court for the starting loosehead role under a new coach, while Macklin is a fair bit rawer, having made a relatively late positional switch from No8. However, with Fitzpatrick backing up Afoa, he’s more likely a third option than a second.
The Verdict Isn’t In Just Yet
Ulster are moving in the right direction: they’re getting younger and they’re getting ‘more Irish’. That phrase is not intended to have any political connotations whatsoever, but merely to reflect that they are moving away from a reliance on non-Irish-eligible players towards a team that has as many native stars as foreign ones.
- Terblanche [36, NIE] – replaced by Jared Payne [26, Project Player]
- Danielli [32, NIE] – replaced by Tommy Bowe [28, IQ]
- Wannenburg [31, NIE] – replaced by Roger Wilson [30, IQ]
It remains to be seen how well Payne plays, but he arrived with great notices from Auckland, and there’s every possibility that he can have a bigger impact than a past-prime Stefan Terblanche; that’s not to diminish Terblanche’s performances, but Payne does have a decade on him. Roger Wilson will have his work cut out to equal Pedrie Wannenburg’s efforts, but it’s an attainable goal; it’s not like being asked to replace Zinzan Brooke. Tommy Bowe is simply a huge upgrade on Simon Danielli.
Ulster’s NIEs next year will be Afoa, Muller and Pienaar, with one spot left to fill. That’s a strong position to be in. They’ve retained their best foreign players and still have a spot left for a problem position. All three of these players performed extremely well throughout the year, all of them play important positions and they’re three serious, committed individuals.
They’re exceedingly well set-up in the three-quarters [with Bowe, Trimble, Gilroy, Cave, Spence, Wallace and Payne they’ve a wealth of riches] and have a solid front row corps with a good age profile.
Ravenhill is due to undergo extensive redevelopment with a large grant from the UK government that will increase its capacity and improve match-day facilities, and there’s a decisive and professional executive – led by Shane Logan and David Humphreys – who have a clear vision of what they want Ulster Rugby to be.
The Mole can’t see past their outhalf slot. It’s probably the most important position on the pitch, and there are huge question-marks around it.
Backrow is also an issue. While there’s a strong core group in Ferris, Henry and the returning Wilson [I can’t see him having any problem fitting back in], Diack is an on/off player, McComish is no great shakes at all and neither Birch nor Henderson have established themselves at Pro12 level. Ferris’ knees are simply a huge worry.
Ulster had a tough group but a kind draw in terms of how their matches fell. Playing Aironi home and away in December put them back in contention after a disappointing loss to Leicester in Welford Road where they couldn’t manage a losing bonus point. As second seeds next year, they’ll have at least one very tough team in their group [unless they get the woeful Cardiff], but should certainly have enough to qualify. Can they go all the way? Unless there’s a dramatic upturn in their outhalf play, The Mole thinks they’ll remain contenders rather than champions.