Don’t Cry In Front Of The Mexicans: Ulster’s 2020-21 Season [And How They Must Keep Twirling, Twirling, Twirling Towards Freedom in 2021-22]

What are you looking at? A season falling apart.

Ulster’s season was marked by drama but lacked tangible achievement. The province started the season in two competitions and ended up playing in four: in two they were competitive [the Pro14 and the Challenge Cup], and in the other two [the Champions Cup and the Rainbow Cup] they were lacklustre. 

The match that will weigh most heavily in the memories of coaches, players and fans alike was the Challenge Cup semi-final loss. In his third season as head coach of the province, Dan McFarland led his team to Welford Road to take on the Leicester Tigers in a European semi-final. Both sides have been champions of Europe in their respective histories, but this season found themselves competing for the minor trophy. 

They arrived at this juncture from different routes: Leicester came through the group stages of the tournament, beating Top14 stragglers Brive [H] and Bayonne [A], while Ulster dropped down from the Champions Cup, having lost their two pool matches against Toulouse [H] and Gloucester [A].

The Challenge Cup occupies a curious grade. It has had different names and different methods of qualification over the years [the Parker Pen Shield being particularly memorable], and there’s no doubting its nature as a second tier trophy. During the group stages, the competition is very much an afterthought for most neutrals. How could it not be? However, once that stage of the competition runs its course, the majority of teams are eliminated, and it comes to knock-out games, the tournament assumes a greater dignity and importance. It’s a European trophy, and while it has been knocked about a bit over the last quarter of a century, it also has been knocking around for a quarter of a century. Some big names are scribed into the base: Leinster, Clermont, Wasps, Bath, Biarritz, Stade Francais, Harlequins … a litany of domestic league champions. 

Neither Ulster nor Leicester are there though. With both teams out of the running for their domestic leagues – Ulster by virtue of the season being shortened and the format altered, Leicester just by virtue of form – this match, as other semi-finals in this tournament have previously done, took on a much greater importance than would have been assigned to it at the start of the season. 

Seeing the semi-final slip away from Ulster in the second half must have been the most frustrating forty minutes of Dan McFarland’s season. What can he take from that slip to make Ulster more competitive at the knock-out end of next season? Guinness PRO14, Aviva Stadium, Ballsbridge, Co. Dublin 29/8/2020 Leinster vs Ulster Ulster’s head coach Dan McFarland Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Ulster played some of the best rugby of their season in the opening half and established a dominant position in the game, but an unfortunate injury to John Cooney in a fifty-fifty collision with Leicester’s giant Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo shortly after halftime either coincided with. or was the cause of, a distinct shift in momentum. The northern province had an experienced replacement for Cooney in former All Black Alby Mathewson, but the veteran New Zealander’s form has unquestionably slid over the last season. As good a pro as he has been, as rigorous as his habits have proven, age has caught up with him. He couldn’t match the control that Cooney brings to the team. He wasn’t able to keep the tempo of Ulster’s game high enough to continue to stress the bigger Leinster pack. His insistence on hoisting contestable box kicks to an inspired Freddie Steward, the Tigers’ towering and sure-handed fullback, repeatedly handed the initiative to the home side. 

That such a distinct change of course led to such an obvious waning of fortunes must have been deeply disappointing for McFarland. He could see a place in the final moving inexorably out of reach; everybody watching could see it. Whether the big change of tactical emphasis came from the head coach or from an experienced player in a key position deciding to take matters into his own hands is something that will always remain in-house. You’re not going to find the answer here. The Mole isn’t privy to it. 

Refusing to play conservatively doesn’t mean that you need your props to start sweating off the weight, trying clown-show offloads and fluting around in the tramlines waiting for chances to run over wingers. You still need them to be committed scrummagers, hard workers and close carriers… you just need them to be able to throw short, accurate passes off either hand.  From The Mole’s point of view, this is the most valuable up-skilling a prop can undertake. It doesn’t require a change in body composition. It doesn’t detract from one part of his game in the hope of adding something else. In the abstract, it allows your front rowers to contribute to a handling attack and to become more of a threat as an individual. How a threat, exactly? By making defenders ask a simple question of themselves: should I commit to making a tackle on a 115kg+ ball carrier, or am I going to set myself flat-footed only to watch him give a pass to a player running past me?

The lesson that the Ulster leadership cadre should take from it is that, paradoxically, conservatism is risky.  It’s risky for this Ulster team, anyway. They don’t have the experience, the size or the brute force to play a conservative brand of rugby that smothers opposition teams though set-piece dominance, a churning maul and harsh, unsparing defence. When they try to do things that they can’t do well, they run the risk of losing momentum and ultimately losing their way.  

MacFarland And Movement

MacFarland was assistant coach at Connacht for the guts of a decade, and was the forwards’ coach for the first two years of the Pat Lam regime. His move to Glasgow to take on an equivalent role in Scotstoun for the 2015-16 season was announced in April 2015, shortly before Glasgow won the Pro12. That victory ensured that MacFarland would enter into a confident and successful environment; few teams replace their forwards coach on the back of winning the league, but MacFarland benefitted from that rare occurrence. He left his post at Connacht with the province finishing a respectable seventh in what was the second year of Lam’s project. 

The following season the tables turned. Connacht finished the regular season second on the ladder [behind Leinster], with Glasgow a point behind them in third. Lam’s men met and edged out the Warriors in a semi-final in the Sportsground before knocking over Leinster in a sun-kissed Murrayfield to seal the most improbable championship in the mottled history of the Celtic League/Pro14. 

So while MacFarland wasn’t there for the year that Lam’s plans came to fruition, he was there in the years when the proverbial seeds were sewn and the plants were carefully nurtured and tended. Whilst missing the harvest might have been a bit of a bummer if he had dwelt on it – after all, McFarland had been at Connacht for a hell of a long time – working with Glasgow was, at the time, a rung up on the career ladder. They were the reigning champions, after all. Working alongside Gregor Townsend directly after working with Lam meant exposure to attacking strategies set out by two coaches with backgrounds as world class players in spinal positions – Townsend a back, an outhalf by trade, and Lam a forward, a No8.

Change Of Pace, Run For Space

Given how the 2021 season turned out, and because of the strengths and comparative weaknesses in their personnel, The Mole sees Ulster moving towards a run-and-gun style of attacking play. They have staggering pace in the outside channels – Baloucoune, Stockdale, McIlroy, Lyttle and of course Aaron Sexton – but they don’t have the cattle up front. 

We’ve often written before about the torpid player market in Irish rugby [that’s not necessarily a pejorative descriptor, it’s just an inactive market compared to the Top14 or the Premiership] and how it’s simply not viable to restock a team in a single off-season. This is another case in point. McFarland can’t go out and recruit four or five Irish-qualified 29-31 year olds with 150-200 first class professional games on their CV, and then dip into the wider player market and find another three or four NIQ players who can give him something special or fill a particular gap. 

To a very large extent, you have got to work with what you have, or at least what you realistically can get – IQ talent from the UK like Billy Burns, the occasional late-developer from the AIL [Rainey Old Boy’s Durban-born Bradley Roberts] or a want-away striker from another province, like Saint John of Cooney.

He has to make his limited signings count for the benefit of the team. It’s not a case of “We need a better loosehead, sign Arthur Joly or Florian Dufour or Walter Desmaison for next season”; you might need a better loosehead, but unless you’ve got every other position stocked to your satisfaction, it’s not a priority. You’re really looking for a player in a specific, high value position who can influence the shape of the game. 

Ulster have had real success with this in the past, with scrum-half Ruan Pienaar [2010-11], No8 Nick Williams [2012-13], fullback Charles Piutau [2016-17] and No8 Marcell Coetzee [2020-21] all winning the Pro12/14 Player of the Year award in their respective bracketed seasons. All of those players played in the spine of the team.

Ulster have recruited extremely well in the past, but they have also had a couple of signings fall apart at the last minute: Arno Botha before the 2017-18 season and now Leone Nakarawa. Bringing Nakarawa to Ravenhill was never a sure thing. He’s not the player he was three years ago, when he won the EPCR’s European Player of the Year award. However, having coached him in the past, McFarland had first hand experience with him and felt it was worth taking a punt; after all, it was an informed punt. However, the deal has broken down due to the Fijian’s failure to pass a medical, and Ulster have been left high and dry when it comes to replacing the departing Pro14 Player of the Year, Marcell Coetzee.

Little. Johnny. Cooney. 

He. Could. Have. Been. A. Lion. You have to imagine that sentence in Miles Harrison’s emotive tones for the full effect. 

Is it such a stretch? Nah. Ali Price is going. The Mole isn’t suggesting that Price marks some sort of nadir of Lions selection, that because Price is going, anybody could be going … I’m just saying that Cooney is a better scrum-half than him. That’s the hill I’ll die on, as the internet metaphor goes. It’s a pretty good hill to choose: it’s unassailable. No animal will be harmed in the defence of that argument, least of all your myopic scribe, although a few wee beasties from the attacking side might perish in the attempt.

In Irish rugby terms, Cooney must be one of the great soup-pissers of the modern game. Since moving to Ulster he has averaged better than 180 points/season, scored more than 6 tries/season and has been selected as the Pro14’s scrum-half of the season four times in a row … the league that both he and Price play in, lest it go unremarked upon. Somehow, he has only played 165 minutes of test rugby over this period. He doesn’t have an outré personality, has failed to generate controversy with social media outbursts and is well-regarded by his provincial coaches and team-mates; how he managed to get on the wrong selectorial side of both Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell is one of the real mysteries of Irish rugby over the last quadrennium. 

It’s also one of the few real injustices. There’ve been quite a lot of explanations put forward to explain Cooney’s repeated omissions over the last four years.  None of them have poured an “Eureka!” moment on to The Mole’s lap in the way that Squidge Rugby’s explanation of Gatland’s No8 selections did. In general, I’ve found that ‘explanations’ have largely over-reached for plausible reasons and failed to get a grasp of any convincing ones.

Over the course of the last four years, Cooney has been the best and most consistent scrum-half in Ireland. Other players may have had better months or runs of games, but taking four seasons as a totality, Cooney is your man. Yet he has only started 1 of 43 test matches since the opening of the 2017-18 season. 

The lad can pass. He can run. He can kick. He can tackle. He’s got a step. He scores tries. He runs great support lines. He kicks goals. He makes decisions. He leads his team-mates. He influences the shape of games. What more do you want him to do?

This season, he led the entire league in points, clean breaks and try assists; last season, he scored six tries and 79 points in seven European Cup games. Over the last couple of seasons he has won three Man of the Match Awards in nine Heineken Cup games. That record of EPCR Man of the Match wins equals Sam Simmonds, last year’s European Player of the Year, and it handily outnumbers the recently awarded 2020-21 titleist, Antoine Dupont, over the equivalent period.

Simmonds, regarded as a genuine ‘bolter’ in Gatland’s Lions squad because of his constant omission from Eddie Jones’ England sides, isn’t a casual comparison. He made it into the touring party solely because of his outstanding form for his club: he hasn’t played test rugby since 2018. 

As a player, you can’t control selection. You can’t “take it out of the referee’s hands” to whisk, fold in and otherwise mix a mole’s metaphors. The coach is something like the judge of the highest court in the land:  his verdict is the only one who counts. Everyone has opinions, he has a verdict.

Take the thorny example of Jones’ line of conduct with regards to Simmonds. The Exeter No8 has scored an almost unbelievable number of tries over the last four seasons for Exeter and had the powerful argument of being the star player on a double-winning team in his favour. Jones just wasn’t convinced.  With Billy Vunipola in form, there was no pressure on that stance: Billy V was one of the most dominant players in the world. However, when Saracens were relegated for cheating the salary cap, Vunipola’s motivation seemed to flag. He lost fitness, and with it form. Jones still backed him though: Vunipola had been outstanding for him in the recent past, and the coach saw him as integral to the way he wanted England to play. Simmonds’ form should have given him an immensely strong claim, but Jones wouldn’t even put him on the bench as an impact sub – a role in which he could only have excelled. 

It felt like Jones was refusing to pick Simmonds to spite himself. The veteran international coach wasn’t going to have his line of thinking picked over and proven wrong by caving to public opinion and selecting Simmonds. This is speculation from a distance, but The Mole feels that Jones got wrapped up in his own combative personality and in doing so exacerbated a battle with the English rugby media from a minor skirmish into a bloody melee.  If Simmonds went out and provided more value for England than an underperforming Vunipola, Jones felt he would be faced with a leering brigade of “I told you so” swaggerers. His massive disinclination to concede this squabble meant that he tied himself in a Gordian knot. The worse Vunipola played, the less Simmonds would have to do to be better than him.  And because Simmonds was being championed by the English press – almost en masse – his strengths would be aired and his weaknesses unremarked.  So Jones’ stance became entrenched, because he wasn’t willing to admit that, in this case, the scribblers and general public opinion might be right, and he, a coach with immense intellectual property and a phenomenal amount of experience in the game, might be wrong. 

Cooney’s exclusion hasn’t really generated the same tension. He hasn’t been a cause célèbre. As a player who has played for three provinces, there’s an undercurrent of “nobody’s child” about him, even if Ulster fans have adopted him as one of their own. There’s also the pernicious idea that since he was let go by Leinster and couldn’t displace Marmion at Connacht, how good can he actually be? Lastly, The Mole doesn’t think that Ulster get the same level of positive attention or coverage that Munster, Leinster or Connacht get from media based in the Republic; they’re a province apart.

Aside from those general factors about players who for provinces outside their own and the way media attention isn’t always meted out equably, I think there may be specific and plausible reasons Cooney and Sexton might not mesh – perhaps there would be too much of an overlap in how each player sees himself shaping the game? There’s no doubt that Cooney has been an incredibly dominant force for Ulster at No9. He’s the most controlling scrum-half your correspondent has seen in the the professional era of Irish rugby.

The whole concept of the petit general – a controlling scrum-half – is irrevocably tied to the idea of France and French rugby. Obviously Napoleon Buonaparte is central to, and indeed emblematic of, the idea, that of the strategic genius whose diminutive frame is fired with an irascible energy that allows him to mentally dominate, outwork and succeed in a sphere that is generally understood to favour size and brawn. In rugby his line descends through Jacques Fouroux and Pierre Berbizier to Jean Baptiste Elissalde and Morgan Parra.

The Mole has noticed that there’s a strange tone where if you refer to Cooney as a petit general, it’s done somewhat ironically; it’s dashed with a sense of knowingness and the obligatory hint that you’d laugh at your own pretensions if somebody took you up on it. Fuck that. Too much self-deprecation can be cloying. “Not taking yourself too seriously” isn’t the moral imperative we should all strive towards. Cooney is a petit general. It’s exactly what he is. 

It’s not just because he kicks goals; that understanding of the term is shallow and lacks nuance. Cooney’s strength comes not just in his role as a player, as an actor, but also as a director. Here at Mole Towers, we often discuss the halfback division of labour in Irish rugby as the scrum-half dictating tempo and the outhalf dictating tactics. At Ulster, Cooney doesn’t just dictate the tempo – typified by how quickly the ball is moved from the base of the ruck – he totally dominates Ulster’s on-field tactical approach. Lots of scrum-halves boss a set of forwards around the pitch, but shouting at lads bigger than you doesn’t make you a general, it makes you a sergeant.

So maybe Cooney’s exclusion from the Irish national side owes something to the idea that playing him with Sexton might not necessarily result in a pairing that is greater than the sum of their parts; it might have meant two generals vying for control, rather than an efficient chain of command. At Ulster, it’s not an issue. No player since David Humphreys has been more vital to the province.

Playmakers With Pace: Will Addison and Michael Lowry

Will Addison, Ulster’s answer to the mercurial Grahame Thorne.

Addison’s return to the realm of players available for selection will have been welcomed by all Ulster fans, and indeed will have brought a short moment of happiness to any rugby fan who heard the news. 

It’s a pleasure to watch Addison to play rugby. Between his balance, his passing ability, his adventurous mindset and his technically excellent fundamentals, he has practically everything you could hope to see in an outside back. 

Unfortunately, sightings have been few and far between. Addison has genuinely been plagued by injuries; plagued in terms of both persistence and severity. In his three seasons at Ulster, he has played in just 22 games. In both 2018-19 and 2019-20, his seasons ended before February; this season [2020-21], he only started in the last week of April 2021. His domestic season didn’t last a whole lot longer, as he picked up a thoroughly deserved red card for a high tackle in Ulster’s Rainbow Friendship Bracelet game against Munster.

Having started 10 games at outside centre [primarily in 2018-19] and 10 games at fullback [primarily in 2019-20] for Ulster, and having started at both No13 and No15 for Ireland under Joe Schmidt, MacFarland obviously still has a question in his mind as to which jersey to start him in. That uncertainty is such a small issue compared to the advantages and options that having a player of Addison’s abilities gives to a confident, experienced coach.

You can hand him the No15 jersey and then put him in at outside centre on a set play to ask a different question of the opposition defence. You can use him as a second receiver in phase play, or use him as an outhalf on first phase … why not? He’s an outstanding passer and an able kicker. He played so much rugby in different positions at Sale [see below] that he is wholly familiar with the defensive concept that underpins outside back play without the ball, as well as the specific duties that apply to each position from No11 to No15. His strength as one of the most intuitive counter-attackers in the Irish game makes No15 a really tempting option for any coach. The Mole particularly remembers his outing in an August 2019 World Cup warm-up game against the Welsh in Cardiff where he performed so well that it looked like Joe Schmidt would be faced with the same sort of Izzy Dagg/Mills Muliaina conundrum that Graham Henry had to resolve in New Zealand’s 2011 RWC campaign. Unfortunately, as has happened so often in Addison’s career, injury took him out of the equation. As an aside, that match was less than two years ago, but it seems to The Mole like it could have taken place before RWC 2015 … different times.

Despite being just 22 years old and a proud Ulsterman, Michael Lowry was Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications in the Rainbow Coalition, the 24th government of the Republic of Ireland. That early responsibility obviously primed him for a shitload of time under tension this season for Ulster in two key playmaking roles, fullback [15 starts/1054 minutes] and outhalf [4 starts, 278 minutes]. Lowry is a richly talented playmaker and quick-footed athlete who, every time he takes the pitch, has to take on the concerns and/or distrust of his slight physical stature. 

And he is a diminutive little fellah; there’s no dissenting opinion. At 170cm [5’7”] and 76kg [11st 13lbs], he’s just about the smallest pro player in the Irish system. That is what it is; it’s not going to change much. When does that manifest as a problem? At fullback he can be picked on any time the ball is contestible, and in a one-on-one competing for a goal-line cross-kick, he’s at a massive disadvantage.

So as talented as Lowry is – and he does so many things well: he passes well off both hands, he’s quick, he can beat players left and right, he has got excellent balance – I think fullback should be a part-time position for him. If he’s there for keeps, opposition coaches can scheme to victimise his height through the tactics touched on above. If you look at him more as a halfback, and perhaps in combination with John Cooney, interchangeable halfbacks [I’m getting carried away here], I think that his size might be less of an issue. After all, Allan Langer was smaller [165cm/76kg] and he played for Queensland in the State of Origin series in three different decades

Track Meet

Baloucoune off to the races for the Irish Mens Sevens side in 2018.

Everyone in Irish rugby is excited about the home run-hitting Robert Baloucoune. His out-and-out pace, his balance, his leaping ability and the sheer grace of his running in open field situations are crowd-pleasers in the most corinthian, innocent sense: he has that rare ability to engender a sense of wonder in spectators. 

Rugby is the consummate team sport. We’ve written many times before about the wide array of demands that it makes on members of a team, the different skillsets and physical abilities required in different positions and the need to perform complicated unit skills from both set pieces and in open play. It’s a game that demands co-operation and even production-line drudgery, but there’s still room for individual prowess. There’s nothing that reminds a crowd of why it’s worth paying in than to see a player like Baloucoune accelerate through the smallest of spaces and then open the gap on a trailing defense on his way to the tryline. It’s not just the rarity of it in the contemporary rugby; it’s far older and more elemental than that recent concern. It’s one of the prime reasons that people watch sporting competitions – not just to see who is the better team, but to see preternaturally gifted athletes perform at levels that those sitting in the stands simply can’t achieve. 

Baloucoune Playing for Enniskillen RFC against Ballynahinch 2nds in the River Rock Ulster Towns Cup final in 2017 [Image Rights: John Dickson/Dickson Digital]. I can’t think of an Irish player who has had a more atypical route to professional rugby: Enniskillen have been around a long time [they’re just four years off the centenary of their foundation], but they’ve never played in the AIL.

The Enniskillen RFC winger was selected as a member of the IRFU’s National Mens Sevens squad in September 2017 and officially joined the Ulster Academy midway through the 2017-18 season; his route went Ulster Championship League 1/Ulster Towns Cup → International Sevens → Ulster Academy.

He made his provincial debut late in October 2018 against the Dragons and his season went from strength to strength from that point, repaying Dan McFarland’s faith with six tries in his first twelve starts. He signed a development deal at the end of that season midway through the typical three-year academy term

With Stockdale, Ethan McIlroy, and of course the blazing speed of Aaron Sexton, the fastest age-grade sprinter n the history of Irish athletics, Ulster have a blend of pace, size and youth in their outside backs that no Irish side have ever fielded before. 

Nick Timoney, A Sprinting Eight

And it’s not just in their outside backs that Ulster have real pace. Nick Timoney restated his credentials as the fastest forward in Irish rugby in the Challenge Cup semi-final with a blazing diagonal run that tore the fabric of the Leicester defense and just about got Ulster back in the game. No8 is Timoney’s best position. With Marcel Coetzee’s time with the province at an end, the former Blackrock man will be looking to make the position his own. 

Sam Simmonds – him again – has shown the value of out-and-out pace at No8 at Exeter, and Rob Baxter has shown the value of bending the gameplan and selection to suit the talent you have. Simmonds is undersized for a pro No8, but Baxter wants him on the pitch as much as possible, not just as an impact player.  At Exeter, they’ve got the cattle to make the weight in the backrow, primarily in the form of man-mountain Dave Ewers.

Simmons and Baxter have not just pointed the way, but laid the Clause 804 and paved the road with regards to using a smaller, pacy No8 in the contemporary professional game. You need to gameplan to get him running at backs in the middle of the field, and you need to balance the backrow by getting significant size in the No6 jersey. 

There’s no point in trying to play Timoney as a like-for-like replacement for Marcel Coetzee. He’s not built for the job. Timoney [188cm,113kg] is listed as significantly bigger than Simmonds [184cm, 103kg], but he’s not built to the same specs as Coetzee. Coetzee was a road grader; Timoney is a trials bike. 

Treadwell and Izzy – No5/No6 | No5 & No6 | No5, No6

An accomplished student athlete at the John Fisher School in Surrey before signing up with the Harlequins Academy, Kieran Treadwell competed in various hurdle events, the long jump, and the javelin as a schoolboy; as a professional rugby player, he is very much described by the cliché of ‘the modern second row’ that has been a commentator’s staple for at least 15 years.

The thrice-capped 25 year old has been, at least to The Mole’s myopic eye, an under-regarded member of McFarland’s squad. Treadwell has already played over 100 games for Ulster [and made almost 80 competitive starts] and won’t turn 26 until the 2021-22 season. That’s an enormous body of work to have built in the second row with the best years of your career still ahead of you. 

Treadwell made his professional debut for Harlequins against Leicester in the Anglo-Welsh cup in January 2014, two months after he turned 18. While it’s open to debate as to whether the Anglo-Welsh Cup counts as first class professional rugby [the selected teams were of the same sort of standard as British & Irish Cup or, more recently, Celtic Cup teams], that’s still a very, very young age to be playing senior rugby in the front five – a risky selection from the then Quins coaching staff, Conor O’Shea and John Kingston. 

Considering that two seasons have been significantly curtailed by the effects of the Covid19 pandemic, to have played more than 100 games in that time speaks volumes for his form and durability, as well as the trust reposed in him by the head coach.

However, to give the ending away, he survived. The following season [2014-15] he was a regular for the England in the U20 Six Nations of 2015, and then featured as both starter and substitute in the subsequent Junior World Championships in Italy. The English team made it to the decider – beating Japan, Wales, France and South Africa on the way – but were toppled in the finale by a Tevita Li and Akira Ioane powered New Zealand team.

Incidentally, Treadwell’s team-mates in the second row of that squad included Charlie Ewels and Sam Skinner, both of whom played in this year’s Six Nations – Ewels for England and Skinner for Scotland.  

Treadwell didn’t play for Harlequins that season, but was back in action in the 2015-16 season – sandwiching European Challenge Cup appearances for Harlequins with outings for London Scottish in the Championship and the B&I Cup as part of a loan deal.  Ulster swooped in for him the following season [2016-17] and Joe Schmidt capped him on the June 2017 tour to Japan. Since then the international honours have been harder to come by, although he won his third cap, at this point his most recent one, against Fiji in November 2017. On the domestic front, however, he has gone from strength to strength. 

With Timoney as a slightly undersized No8 – and a particularly fast one – Ulster should consider getting a third second row on the pitch at blindside. They could badly do with the size.  

Until there are law changes, or the regulations regarding the number of substitutes change, picking an athletic second row at blindside is going to be particularly viable.  At present, the balance of the game is tipped towards size and power output ahead of endurance. An eight-man substitutes bench means that you can change more than half your players, and the increasingly popular 6/2 split means that three-quarters of your forwards won’t have to play anything like a full game. 

If Ulster had a stand-out blindside, it’s not a move that they’d need to look at with any sense of urgency. However, they don’t, and haven’t since the retirement of Stephen Ferris in 2014.  And to be pragmatic, Ferris was hanging on to hope for the last two seasons of his career … he played his last test for Ireland in March 2012, didn’t play at all in 2013 and only played in four games in 2014 before retiring that summer. Robbie Diack filled the role for a long time, including a lot of occasions standing in for an injured Ferris and was a diligent, durable player who played more than 200 games for his adopted province, but he was never a go-to player for the team. 

Treadwell has the athleticism and fitness to fill the role; Cormac Izuchukwu is born for it. Unfortunately, Izuchukwu won’t be around for much of next season, having torn his ACL in early April. It’s an injury that normally carries a nine-month tariff, so with luck he will return to the Ulster fold around the time of the 2022 Six Nations. 

In the meantime, it’s worth looking at Treadwell to fill the role. Playing a third second row, or a hybrid blindside flanker-loosehead lock, has become more and more popular over the last three years. There’s no denying that it’s a trend … and like any trend, topicality is suspect. It’s important to go back to first principles if, as a coach, you are adopting something that another coach has pioneered. Will it work for your team the same way that it has worked for another team? Are you just copycatting an idea because it’s en vogue? Coaches who pioneer tactical innovations, or those who re-establish the value of previously discarded schemes earn significant kudos – for example, Bill Belichic’s identification of ‘his’ type of slot receiver [the Y-slot specialists like Welker, Amendola and Edelman], or his two tight end offense, or his revitalisation of the ‘dying’ fullback position – but you get chops for winning as well as innovating. If using a system that somebody else has pioneered helps you win games, use it. You don’t have to invent everything you use; not every source has to be primary. 

The poster-boy of the position and reigning World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter Steph du Toit has always switched between lock and blindside. His first start for the Springboks came at blindside in the surprise loss to Japan in RWC15 under Heyneke Meyer, while he played mostly at lock for Allister Coetzee’s term … although the former Western Province coach switched him back to blindside for his last four matches in charge [the November 2017 series of internationals]. 

Eddie Jones used Courtney Lawes there throughout 2018 [a poor season for England] but went to Underhill and Curry for the majority of RWC19.

Steve Hansen selected Scott Barrett at blindside for New Zealand’s ill-fated semi-final against England in Yokohama in RWC19, having previously used him off the bench in that position in their tight November 2018 win over England. Former Welsh coach Warren Gatland experimented with Cardiff lock Seb Davies on the blindside against the Springboks in their fixture in Washington DC in 2018, and indeed played him both on the flank and at No8 in 2017 and 2018. Davies is an exceptional athlete and a outstanding handler for such a big man, but the move didn’t take and he has returned to the row for his club. 

Those four teams names above – South Africa, England, New Zealand and Wales – were the four semi-finalists of RWC19. While three of them have changed coaches in the interim [Eddie Jones the one hold-out], going into the last World Cup, all four coaches selected teams that got three locks on the pitch; 2018 was a really big year for it. 

But 2018 is three years ago. Hasn’t the game moved on? It depends on what you’re looking for – as above, you have to examine the makeup of your pack from first principles. 

What do you gain from picking a lock, or a part-time lock, as a blindside? Size, obviously; a lineout option; probably a stronger maul; probably stronger close-in defense; really heavy clear-outs. What do you lose? Mobility in both attack and defense. Handling. Defense off the side of scrums, where a lack of pace can really be victimised. 

As a coach, you might decide that you simply need extra size in the pack. If you don’t have any real behemoths up front – your Joe Tekoris, your Will Skeltons, your Ben Tameifunas, your Edwin Makas, your Uini Atonios – and you’re going to France to take on a Top14 side in the Champions Cup [or perhaps a Blue Bulls side in the United Rugby Championships], then you might simply make the decision that you need to get size in pack or risk getting crumpled from the off.   

Cormac Izuchukwu has the height, pace, ball-handing abilities, athleticism and can-do attitude to make the Ulster No6 jersey his own for a long time to come. A backrow of Izuchukwu, Crothers and McCann is the sort of future that will allow Ulster fans to nod off to sleep with a smile on their faces, rather than staying up all night worrying about how they’re going to fill Nos6-8 in the future, as The Mole presumes they have been doing.

Narrowing the focus from the eight man pack to the composition of the three man backrow unit gives you indicators as to whether the idea might be an emergency decision or a more long-term strategy.  Returning to Ulster as the case in point,  it’s a backrow that is genuinely skinny: no real size, no great depth. Sean Reidy [32, 183cm/104kg] and Jordi Murphy [30, 188cm/106kg] are a very serviceable pair of opensides, in their prime and both capped at test level. They both played a lot of rugby for the province this season. Matty Rea [27, 193cm/113kg] and Greg Jones [25, 196cm/105kg] don’t match that standard on the other side of the scrum; Rea has had a good season, but to be frank neither he nor Jones are anywhere near an Irish squad, nor do they have any real points of difference at the pro level. At No8, given the early release of Marcel Coetzee, they’ve got Nick Timoney [26, 188cm/114kg] and the youngster David McCann [21, 193cm/107kg]. Timoney we’ve talked about above; McCann is an undoubted prospect, but he’s exposed at this stage of his career in what is an undersized and underpowered unit. Putting Treadwell or Izuchukwu in at No6 beside Timoney at No8 is something MacFarland might look at: Treadwell is fit enough and mobile enough to do a job for you, and gives you a front six rather than a front five, like stacking the midfield in association football, while Izuchukwu … well, he’s just born for it.

All We Want Is Sexy, Sexy Ulster

Ulster’s season effectively ended with the loss to the Tigers; from The Mole’s [short-sighted, worm’s eye] perspective, their Rainbow Cup efforts were irrelevant, for better [their good showing at the RDS] or worse [a miserable outing to Thomond]. The collapse of the Nakawara signing – and the news that he has subsequently signed up with Toulon – has got their summer break off to a bad start, and irritated their fanbase to an extent. Things could be better.

And they will be. Jack McGrath has had surgery on a troublesome hip that really prevented him from making any sort of contribution this season. It’s an injury that seems to have been affecting him in one way or another since 2018; he struggled on his comeback from that surgery in early 2019. With any luck, this procedure will allow him a late-career surge similar to that of Dave Kilcoyne in 2019. Sam Carter also made it back on to the pitch for the end of the season, and his presence as a constant in the second row will improve Ulster’s front five depth significantly and should go some way to making Ulster a more cohesive force up front.

Gareth Milasinovich remains a curiosity. Any coach would love the size he brings to the tighthead side of the scrum – at 191cm and 130kg he’s a huge man even by the stands of professional rugby. And any coach of an Irish province would love the heritage he allies to that size: his grandfather, Norman McFarland, played for Ulster and qualifies his grandson as Irish.

The Mole doesn’t see them as being in a bad spot for props, despite what some might say. Marty Moore had a great season, playing 22 games [19+3] for more than 1100 mins of pitch time. On the other side of the scrum, the 25 year old Eric O’Sullivan won his first test cap and put in a comparable stint to Moore’s, making 21 appearances [16+5] for 1100 mins of gametime. 

But even with McGrath and Carter in the mix, Ulster won’t be a team who can batter their way to silverware. So I don’t know why I started down that road.

What we really want is to see Addison in the No15 jersey but slipping into the outside centre channel periodically, with James Hume taking plays on the blindside wing and big Jacob used as a fullback strike runner/dummy threat. I want to see Lowry in the No10 jersey, playing as paired halfbacks with Cooney, each of them equally happy at scrum-half and outhalf. I want to see Lowry – whatever position he starts in – tasked as playing scrum-half on one side of the pitch for the last twenty minutes of games so that Ulster can play with two scrum-halves, a scrum-half on either side of the pitch, with Addison at first receiver and the spare scrum-half as a second play-maker. I want to see Treadwell on the blindside to allow Nick Timoney time out of the pack to get his hands on the ball in the middle of the pitch as a third centre. I want to see Marty Moore hitting his split-step to sit a defender down, then flipping a nice little right-left pass out to Big Stuart to win his contact and flick out a backhander for Baloucoune to race through from twenty yards back. I want to see Addison play in the No12 jersey and just stack the backline with inhuman pace: Hume, Baloucoune, Sexton and Stockdale. Divide the backline into playmakers and weapons, with no room for somebody who doesn’t have a point of difference. You either make tries or score tries.

Ulster need to minimise their losses in the conservative hurly-burly of the tight exchanges, but they’ll only push themselves ahead of their competition by going all-out in open play, by taking risks at every level – selection, strategy, tactics, decision-making. Conservatism has no future in Ulster.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Cry In Front Of The Mexicans: Ulster’s 2020-21 Season [And How They Must Keep Twirling, Twirling, Twirling Towards Freedom in 2021-22]

  1. What a fantastic read. Thank you for such a well thought out and balanced analysis of our club. You articulated much of what us fans are thinking and very little to disagree with. Great job 👍

  2. It’s good to have you back and analysing the game we love so much with the provence I love so much! A great read as always.

  3. Excellent review and very insightful as were his comments during Ulster’s “basket case” phase!!!
    More from The Mole please!!

  4. Regarding Simmonds, the rugby media fail to touch on the fact that Ben Earl plays off the bench. He’s hardly a slouch and you’ll never read any criticisms of him from them. Jones hasn’t gone in the opposite direction here, he’s chosen a player who’s arguably as good an athlete as Simmonds, who plays in a top team, and who can also cover 7. I think the argument that he refused to select Simmonds out of spite is too casual. He was never a fan of Armand, he hasn’t ever selected Joe Simmonds, he’s never really trusted Harry Williams and he recently dropped Jonny Hill. I think the more accurate argument is that he thinks there are flaws with the a number of Chiefs players. And let’s be honest, Chiefs hit a plateau this season. Rob Baxter has done a great job, but things are slowing and it’s debatable how clever the Chiefs can be when they can’t batter sides.

  5. One minor point you didn’t mention wrt Cooney (probably because your position was ably stated without it) is that he is capable of standing in at 10, certainly at a high enough level to play against the likes of Italy, Samoa, Canada, etc – which would make his case for inclusion in a world cup squad even more compelling for most people but still wasn’t enough to get a call up. I do remember that before moving to Connacht he was involved in a ‘bust up’ with former Leinster team mate who had already moved West – perhaps he was a bit immature while he was at Leinster and Schmidt held a grudge?

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