Showdown at Ravenhill

Ulster Rugby_Tommy Dickon_INPHO

Ulster are giving their fans something to cheers about after a couple of dreadful seasons where the province has let its supporters down, both on and off the pitch. A real test of their mettle is around the corner when rivals Munster make the trip up to Ravenhill at the weekend.

Munster are travelling up to Ulster on Friday night for the first of the Christmas season interpro series, and The Mole was just struck by the realisation that, at this moment in time, both sides sport identical records for the season: P14 | W9 | D1 | L4

That makes it a very interesting match-up in the short term. Ulster got absolutely hockeyed out of Thomond at the end of September: it finished 64-7, the worst loss in the province’s history. Their entire history. Dan McFarland sent down a significantly understrength team – not the only Pro14 coach who has taken that approach to a Thomond fixture this season – and when a few bounces and decisions went against them early in the game, they threw in the towel and, as a collection of players, let themselves and their organisation down.

Dan McFarland_Ulster

Dan MacFarland was a solid pro as a player, and has built his career as a coach methodically and comprehensively. He doesn’t have the charisma of Pat Lam or the celebrated playing career of Gregor Townsend, two coaches to whom he has been assistant in the recent past, but he has shown that he is a clear thinker with a deep understanding of the game on the pitch and a coherent plan of what needs to be accomplished off it in order to progress a team and get results.

It was Ulster’s fifth competitive game of the season; at the time they were unbeaten [three wins and a draw], but that short run included a couple of very narrow home wins where John Cooney had rescued them with last minute penalties. A win is a win, but in terms of performance they were looking more than a little iffy, and the huge loss to Munster seemed to suggest that real progress had been minimal. If there was to be a change in the provincial pecking order, it would be between Connacht and Ulster fighting it out for third best. 

The next round of matches made that theoretical debate a practical matter, and saw Connacht win in Ravenhill for the first time since 1960. It was a convincing win. Connacht were fiery and inventive but not particularly clinical, and Nick Timoney’s last minute breakaway try made the score closer than the game had been. 

Their form has been mixed since then, but two bonus point wins in a row over the Scarlets in Europe has evidenced a significant resurgence in belief and form. All of a sudden, Ulster look like a coherent and competitive outfit. 

Small Numbers, Big Payout

What has changed? A lot, but in on-pitch terms it begins with the front row. Coach MacFarland is a former loosehead prop and spent the guts of a decade as forwards coach to Connacht, before putting in well-received stints at Glasgow Warriors and Scotland in the same role. While the argument is conjectural, it seems logical that he would take a particular interest in, and have a particular influence on, the lowest numbers in the team. 

Since John Afoa’s departure for Gloucester, Ulster’s propping corps has been underwhelming to a man. Journeymen became default first string options, and weren’t put under any stress by home grown academy graduates who could neither hold up their end at scrum time nor make a dent in general play. 

Marty Moore_INPHO_01415080_Matthew Bunn

Marty Moore: born to scrum and living out his birthright. Photo Credit: Matthew Bunn/INPHO

Les Kiss recognised that fifteen months ago  and convinced Marty Moore to end his unproductive time at Wasps – with a year left on that deal – and come to Ulster for a new start. Unfortunately, Moore’s arrival came too late for Kiss … and for Kiss’ successor Jono Gibbes, for that matter. And even when the former Leinster and Ireland tighthead eventually arrived in Belfast, a late pre-season injury took him out of selection reckoning until the first European tie. Fitness – both injury and general physical preparedness – has always been the weak point in Moore’s make-up, but as a scrummager he’s right up there with the best in the country. He’s practically immovable: he’s got short limbs, immense strength and the technique of a master craftsman. It seems impossible to put him in a bad position.

 

Getting the best out of Marty Moore – a two-time Six Nations winner – is one thing, but turning a unheralded ex-Templeogue College, DUFC and Banbridge RFC 23 year old into a European Cup-level prop in three months is a hell of a job.

Eric O'Sullivan_Ulster

There’s enough credit in Eric O’Sullivan’s performances this season to split it two ways: the player himself for his efforts and MacFarland for improving his play and believing in him. O’Sullivan wasn’t seen as a huge age-grade talent, but his dedication and competitive instincts seem to have provided stronger foundations for a pro career than bags full of representative gear. As we have often said in the past though, for so many young players the difference between having a pro career in the game and proverbially hanging up the boots is having a coach who sees something in you, pushes you and then selects you when it counts.

Eric O’Sullivan [b.1995] never played for the Irish U20s; he was behind Jerry Loughman, Andrew Porter, Michael Lagan and Liam O’Connor for the loosehead berth that season. He played some games for the Leinster U20s, but generally it’s harder to make the cut for the Leinster Academy than it is to get the nod for the Irish U20s, so it’s not surprising that he had to explore other options outside his home province. O’Sullivan stuck with it, and came to the attention of the Ulster Academy due to his performances in the AIL for Trinners. To be frank, I think it would likely have ended there except for MacFarland’s intervention and subsequent efforts: as we’ve written previously, the Ulster Academy has a poor reputation for turning out pro forwards. More talented prospects have gone in and not come the other side.  

 

But MacFarland gave him a run-out as one of three looseheads in Ulster’s first pre-season friendly against Gloucester, and then started him in the next one against Wasps. O’Sullivan made his competitive debut for the province in the first game of the Pro14 – the 15-13 home win against last season’s beaten finalists, the Scarlets – and made a healthy, 26-minute contribution after coming on for the younger-than-he-looks veteran Andy Warwick. As the season entered its second quarter, O’Sullivan squeezed Warwick out for the starting No1 jersey, and cemented his role, his reputation, and very likely a professional contract with an outstanding 80 minute performance in the away fixture of the European double-header against the Scarlets. 

Cleaning House Like The Big Red Machine

While O’Sullivan’s promotion was arguably aided by the knee injury Warwick suffered against Cardiff and an early season training injury to Kyle McCall, other decisions have been far more clear cut. Rodney Ah You renewed his Ulster contract in June, but was released to join Newcastle in mid-November, having not been selected since he re-signed. Schalk van der Merwe was likewise released from his contract in early December, again having not featured in a MacFarland selection. 

Wiehahn Herbst has been missing since picking up a groin injury on the September trip to South Africa. Information on that is scarce; it could be that he’s a long term scratch, or it could be that he’s not in MacFarland’s plans. 

Because it seems like there’s something going on, and that MacFarland is clearing house. Pete Browne announced his immediate retirement from the game on 16th October, due to concussion-related symptoms. That didn’t strike The Mole as unusual, merely unfortunate. Current Leinster scrum coach Johnny ‘Fogs’ Fogarty retired in early November 2010 and blindside Kev McLaughlin retired in September 2015 on the same basis. It happens, and increasingly often.  But then a week later Jean Deysel retired citing a “combination of lower body injuries and various niggles”. And two weeks after that, club hero Chris Henry announced his retirement, referring to the physical toll his body had paid over the years. It seems odd to go through a full pre-season and then call time on yourself three months into the season for non-specific injuries … but I suppose when you know, you know.

  • 16 Oct – Browne retires
  • 24 Oct – Deysel retires
  • 05 Nov – Henry retires
  • 19 Nov – Ah You released
  • 04 Dec – van der Merwe released

Still, that’s a really high number of players to retire or ship out within the first three months of the season. The regularity of the announcements was thought-provoking, and the fact that they were all forwards even more so. What’s the tipping point between seeing a pattern and formulating a conspiracy theory?

Just Put Me In The Game, Coach 

It’s not just addition by subtraction though – the coach seems to have pressed play on a couple of players, not least Kieran Treadwell. The former Harlequin’s performances for the province this season have been by far the best of his career to date. He’s more involved, more physical and simply more effective. He seems to have a better idea of what he’s supposed to be doing in each part of play. It’s obvious that he’s responding well to the coach, but another part of his improvement is due to the fact that he’s always on the pitch; he has played in every game of the season thus far. 

Kieran Treadwell_Ulster

Kieran Treadwell was sought after by a number of provinces on the back of his performances for the English U20s in the 2015 JWC. The then-Harlequins contracted lock played for Ireland U18 Youths two years previously, and boasted a combination of size and athleticism – he was a 400m hurdler as a schoolboy – that turned heads. Joe Schmidt fast-tracked him into the Irish squad for the tour to Japan, but he was left behind by the incredible progress of the phenomenon that is James Ryan, and Tadhg Beirne’s outstanding performances for the Scarlets and latterly Munster have seen him further slip down the Irish second row depth chart. However, his form this season has been impressive, and even if he’s not knocking on the door of international selection, he’s making back some lost ground.

Ulster are reasonably light at second row: in September they named five in their squad in Iain Henderson, Alan O’Connor, Treadwell, Brown and young Alex Thompson, returning to the northern fold from a productive spell in the AIL with Terenure. But Brown never played a minute, and Thompson hasn’t made a matchday squad. So for the first fourteen games of the season, MacFarland has essentially been cycling three second rows in and out of the starting XV, a tight business when one of that trio is a full time Irish international. Indeed the now retired Jean Deysel picked up a bit of slack on the aforementioned South African trip by turning out in the No19 jersey … a little ironic, seeing as he was initially brought to Ireland by Munster as short term cover for their injured locks Dave Foley and Jean Kleyn. Very gentle irony, obviously. 

 

But playing a lot of games seems to be the right recipe for getting good performances out of Treadwell [10+4, 789 mins], as it is for a number of players. Overuse is more of an issue in the modern game than it ever has been, but the Pro14 is structured in blocks around international rugby, and those test weekends provide down weeks for those who don’t make the national set up. So Treadwell played 10 games in 10 weeks, but then Ulster didn’t have a competitive fixture between the 3rd and the 23rd of November. That was his break. 

There are all sorts of reasons to rotate players in and out of matchday squads, but there are also reasons to keep them in the team week in, week out: unit coherency, match fitness and form. 

Three Seasons’ Worth 

Marcell Coetzee_Ulster

Marcell Coetzee has had a huge positive influence on Ulster’s performances this season. He has only missed one start: the horror loss at Thomond Park. Needless to say that correlation isn’t causation – there were a lot of other first string players missing that evening – but when Coetzee is in the team they’re a far more competitive entity. Ulster have four quality backrowers and then a very significant drop to the next tier … so MacFarland is doing what any sensible coach would do and picking the best four guys as often as he can.

Beyond better instruction and more regular gametime, one of the reasons that Treadwell is playing better is that he’s playing in a pack with a player that makes everyone look better: Marcel Coetzee. Coetzee has started 13 of 14 matches [906 minutes], and in terms of the league, he leads the team in carries, tackles, turnovers won and defenders beaten, i.e. pretty much everything. Ulster signed him three years ago to do all these things, and when injury robbed him of the first two seasons of his contract, they simply didn’t have the players in their squad to fill the void that his absence created. Now that he’s healthy, it looks like he’s trying to jam three years of rugby into one season. His workrate is absolutely outstanding for such a physically big man. 

Jordi Murphy was always going to be a very useful addition to Ulster, but he’s not a monster by any means, and a backrow of Reidy, Murphy and Timoney would have too many players with overlapping characteristics. Coetzee’s availability for selection doesn’t just add his abilities to the team, but balances the backrow. Indeed his brute force and tireless competitive instinct have had a very positive effect not just on Ulster’s backrow, but on their entire pack. 

Nick Timoney_Ulster

Three backrow positions multiplied by 14 games give 42 available starts for backrow players. Coetzee has had 13, Timoney and Reidy nine each, and Murphy has had seven – that’s 38 of 42 starts between four players over three positions. Matty Rea [three starts] and Jean Deysel [one start] have picked up the remainder. In contrast to their northern cousins, Leinster have split their 42 starts between Jack Conan [7], Rhys Ruddock [7], Josh van der Flier [7], Dan Leavy [5], Josh Murphy [5], Max Deegan [4], Caelan Doris [3], Sean O’Brien [2] and Scott Penny [2]. Leinster have the talent, and have to keep players happy, Ulster have different issues.

Wash Rinse Repeat

Sean Reidy is an under-rated player who has been a big contributor to Ulster over the last three seasons, and is in the middle of another industrious season, appearing in 13 [9+4] of 14 games. Nick Timoney – who has a very strong claim to be the fastest forward in the country going on his long range try against Connacht – has a similar appearance record this season, although he has spent longer on the pitch than Reidy: 761 minutes compared to Reidy’s 706 minutes. Between injury and Irish selection, Jordi Murphy has only managed 7 games [7+0] for 503 minutes … but when he’s available, he’s in the team. 

MacFarland has made selection easy for himself in this regard, and begun to build the team’s identity by the consistency of those selections. It’s tough on Matty Rea [3+2, 226 mins], Greg Jones [0+3, 42 mins], Clive Ross [0+2, 10 mins] and Caleb Montgomery [0+0, 0 mins] to train hard all week and get very little time on the pitch, but they know where they stand. Ulster don’t lose many forwards to Ireland, and the coach picks the best team available. He’s not rotating players just to keep them happy, and the precedents of Ah You and van der Merwe prove that he is ruthless in culling non-contributors. That’s the stick. On the carrot side, MacFarland has shown in picking out and backing Eric O’Sullivan that he will select players who impress him, no matter their background. 

What You Can Do With What You Have 

That single-minded selection policy extends to the backline too: Billy Burns has started 13 games at No10 this season. Stuart McCloskey has started 12 at No12. John Cooney has started 9 at scrumhalf and would have started more bar a couple of knocks and niggles. That midfield knuckle of scrum-half, outhalf and first centre are locked in. Other teams may know what they’re getting when they play Ulster, but Ulster know what they themselves are doing better than they have in at least a couple of years. 

There’ve been some positions where the jersey has been more up for grabs. Fullback was a problem. MacFarland arrived into a side where the fullback for the last two years [Charles Piutau] had just left, and his back-up and obvious replacement [Louis Ludik] was in the middle of a long period of rehabilitation from a serious injury. So he cycled through the options, with the newly arrived Will Addison getting the first shot. Back issues saw him ruled out for about a month following the first two games of the season, and forced MacFarland to go down the depth chart one more notch to Peter Nelson. Nelson was given a run of four games in the No15 jersey but struggled to impose himself … so MacFarland moved on from him, and unearthed a tidy little talent in the teenage Michael Lowry. 

Dave Shanahan_Ulster

Scrum-half Dave Shanahan has raised his game over a short period of time to a level The Mole didn’t realise [or believe] that he was capable of attaining … on a consistent basis, at any rate. Shanahan’s pass got him into the Irish U20 squad in 2013, but there didn’t seem to be any other real strengths to his game. He looked like a one-trick Shetland pony. there was no real evidence of the single-minded determination and competitive edge that powered Peter Stringer, his obvious prototype, through an outstanding 20-season, 450+ professional game career. But a few knocks and niggles picked up by John Cooney early in the season opened a door, Dan MacFarland backed him ahead of the highly-rated 20 year old Johnny Stewart – not a popular decision – and the former Belvedere College schoolboy [who still looks like a Belvedere College schoolboy] has repaid the coach’s fait in full with some excellent performances and a handful of tries.

Now Ludik is back in action, and has taken the starting fullback roll from Lowry and run with it, turning in two strong European performances in the space of eight days. Fullback has been a tricky conundrum for MacFarland, but going from his selection practices in other positions, I’d say that it has been resolved in his head for the remainder of the season, with the added benefit of a new, long term contender putting his name forward in Lowry.

Get Them Baptised Before They Realise What They’ve Signed Up For

Somewhat under the radar, MacFarland has balanced his pragmatic and consistent selection practices against what is arguably the most progressive youth selection program in any of the provinces by giving almost 1500 minutes of gametime [1485, to be exact] to five players aged 20 or younger. 

The 20 year olds Tom O’Toole [3+7, 304 mins], James Hume [3+2, 269 mins] and Angus Curtis [2+2, 170 mins], and the teenagers Angus Kernohan [3+7, 363 mins] and Michael Lowry [5+1, 379 mins] have all got an early selection push and been exposed to a high level of rugby. The Mole is a little surprised that MacFarland hasn’t furthered his rebuilding efforts by firing the bolshy Matthew ‘Dixie’ Dalton into the fray, especially given Ulster’s lack of depth in the second and back rows; Dalton made 8 appearances last season [2+6, 209 mins] as a 19 year old under Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes, and his performances for the Irish U20s last seasons showed he has the abrasive nature to make himself a bit of a hometown hero.

Oh Yeah, Those Guys

Any article on Ulster’s start to the 2018-19 season that didn’t mention the huge role of their Irish internationals – Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale – would have to have a fairly distinct E&OE stamped across the bottom.

Stockdale has been nothing short of electric, and after a few sputters, Rory Best has got his engine running and is chuntering along in the manner that Ulster and Irish fans have been accustomed to over the last decade. But Henderson’s efforts have been immense, and his unfortunate injury has the potential to badly disrupt the province’s hard won momentum. The big lock has started nine games and played 605 minutes of rugby for his province, significantly more than either Best [416 mins] or Stockdale [391 mins].

Iain Henderson_Ulster

Ulster are already short-handed in the second row, and while Ian Nagle has recently arrive in Ravenhill on loan from Leinster, he’s just not in the same league as Hendy: not as a player and not as a figurehead. Nagle was brought in to give cover to a stretched department, not take over as boss. Henderson’s loss is the one which Ulster can least afford over their entire roster.

It’s formulaic to write that he has ‘grown into a leadership role’, but he has, so I went ahead and wrote it. There was a touch of Mal O’Kelly about him earlier in his career – enormously talented and particularly intelligent, but occasionally absent-minded or non-plussed about why everybody was getting so worked up – but he seems to have become more focussed over the last year. Maybe it was his experience with the Lions in New Zealand, maybe it was Ulster’s off-pitch disintegration last year, maybe it was the emergence of James Ryan as a world class second row in his first season of professional rugby; probably it was a combination of all three in different measures. Whatever the reasons, there seems to be a deepened dedication and a new sense of awareness that his province – coach, teammates, fans – are looked to him for leadership. He was sent out to lead a pack of kids on the suicide mission to Thomond, and it was when he went off concussed that things really fell apart for Ulster.

Up For The Match, Down To Business

A rake of coaches have sent understrength teams to Thomond, and Munster have duly slaughtered them. Alan Clarke [Ospreys], Richard Cockerill [Edinburgh] and MacFarland himself all wrote the game off before they even got on the proverbial bus. As a result, Munster have looked like golden gods at home. In terms of points difference, there’s an enormous, scarcely believable gap between themselves and Ulster: +147 to -30.

But the win/loss record tells a different story. There’s nothing separating them on that metric. And they’re playing in the same competitions, so the standard of opposition the two teams have faced has been very similar; for that matter Racing are a lot better than anyone Munster have been paired off against yet. Ulster took a whipping down in Thomond at the end of the first month of games but are coming off inspiring back-to-back European wins – bonus point wins at that. In contrast, Munster are slouching into the fixture having taken just five points out of a possible ten from their games against Castres … and they had the shit kicked [and punched, and gouged] out of them last weekend. There’s blood in the water and Ulster will be looking for payback for September. This one could be a war. 

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2 thoughts on “Showdown at Ravenhill

  1. As always, another superbly scripted piece of analysis. But riddle me this, is there any chance that the Coach within McFarland has identified, how and what, needs to be done to get out of Ian Nagle, the sort of once-in-a-lifetime performance he gave for Munster against Australia in Thomond, eight long years ago, in the dim and distant past, when he played like James Ryan and looked (for 80 minutes+) like a reincarnation of Ian Jones, formerly of the parish of Whangarei, n the North Island of NZ?

    McFarland, as you point out, has shed players like confetti during November, but he recruited Nagle, albeit on loan from Leo Cullen’s Leinster, (himself a former second-row, turned Head Coach), who had taken a punt on Nagle, only to be disappointed with the outcome. I can’t believe that Cullen and McFarland didn’t discuss the conundrum which is Nagle’s “ON Switch”. If McFarland can find where that is, and whether it still works, his short-term miracle turn-around will really prove his coaching calibre.

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