Last Season: Ulster had their best year since 1999, reaching the Heineken Cup final on the back of epic victories over Leicester, Clermont and Munster, and a near-miss in the Marcel Michelin. The beating in the final took a little gloss off the year, but there is a satisfied glow in Belfast this summer.
League form started badly, recovered, then fell off a cliff after Thomond – the 6th place finish was probably a tad unfair on their general play, but they don’t have the depth to compete on both fronts.
In: Mark Anscombe (Auckland, coach), Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Roger Wilson (Northampton Saints), Nick Williams (Aironi), Niall O’Connor (Connacht), Rob Herring (Stormers)
Out: Brian McLoughlin (errr … somewhere in Ravenhill that isn’t immediately clear; possibly washing linen), Ian Humphreys & Conor Gaston (London Irish), Pedrie Wannenbosh (Castres), Ian Whitten (Exeter Chiefs), Willie Faloon (Connacht), Simon Danielli & Stefan Terblanche (retired)
Last season will live long in Ulster memories – not only did they get to a HEC final, but they produced two of their best away performances of the professional era en route. Ulster were always seen as a soft touch away from Ravenhill, but their efforts in Clermont and Munster will be remembered for a long time.
On the flip side of that, Ulster started the season appallingly, and their efforts after Thomond Park were not great. The decision to change the fly-half after Humphreys poor performances in March and April did not work on the field (with respect to Paddy Jackson, he did ok, but looked too raw for the highest level), and back-fired spectacularly off it. The vision of having an experienced and competitive out-half nursing young Jackson through his formative years are in ashes after iHumph didn’t feel the love and jumped ship. It clearly still hurts (is there regret?), and must rank as a stunningly poor piece of man-management of an important player by the coaching staff.
Of course, Brian McLaughlin has moved on to be replaced by Mark Anscombe – while there is no doubt he was rather shabbily treated, we think he had taken Ulster as far as he could, and a new voice was needed. That new voice was received rather unenthusiastically after the usual Wayne Smith type speculation, and his record is less impressive than say, Rob Penney’s, but we have to assume Humph knows what he has done. As it stands, the starting 10 is likely to be Jackson, with O’Connor backing up – it’s pretty raw and shallow, and if it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, Ulster might struggle – it’s huge pressure at an early age on Jackson, let’s hope he copes with the expectation.
[Aside: this doesn’t imply Penney would have been a better man for the job – the Ulster job entails guiding a relatively young team driven by a core of grizzled leaders to European silverware, its a much more laissez-faire role than Penney’s activist re-shaping in Munster – a different personality and skillset would be needed. Penney would probably have been too hands-on for Ulster at this stage in their development.]
On the playing front, it’s been roughly a break-even summer on the transfer front. Bowe for Danielli is clearly a significant improvement, but O’Connor for iHumph is not, and while Roger Wilson for Wannebosh is not a like-for-like comparison, it’s replacing an older player with a record of good service with a younger one who understands the club mentality. Factor in that fly half and backrow are more important than wing, and perhaps Ulster didn’t do that well..
The loss through injury of Paddy McAllister is significant – not only are Ulster relying on Tom Court, but when Deccie borrows him to make half-time oranges for Cian Healy, they’ll have to play Callum Black. It’s terrible for a young promising player to miss a whole season at this stage of his development – we wish him the best. At tighthead, they have the opposite problem – Deccie will want to see a lot of Deccie Fitz and Adam Macklin, but Ulster haven’t signed John Afoa to make up the numbers. That ranks as a good problem. Expect to see Niall Annett start some Pro12 games when Rory Best is sunning himself in Maynooth – Nigel Brady and Rob Herring are also in the squad, but Annett is the future.
Second-row depth is good – Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy are one of the best starting pairs in the HEC, Lewis Stevenson developed at a rate of knots last year, and Iain Henderson is the coming lock of Irish rugby. Henderson will probably play more at 6 this season, both to get experience and to cover a thin sector, but he’ll be challenging for a starting spot within the next 2-3 years.
The second real problem area for Ulster (the first being loose-head and the third out-half) is the back-row. The starting trio of Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Roger Wilson are top class – Fez is incomparable, Henry was the stand-out openside in the Heineken Cup last season and his injury played a large part in Leinster’s ease of victory in the final, while Roger Wilson has been swimming at the top level for three years now. But behind those, it’s a steep drop-off to Mike McComish, Robbie Diack and Nick Williams – ouch! Williams was a mystifying signing – he was poor at Munster, and struggled to get his game at Aironi – why the coaching staff thought he’d be the man to backup the classy Ulster starters when silverware is the aim is unclear. The transfer of Willie Falloon to Connacht has further thinned out the back row – he hasn’t exactly been shooting the lights out, but he could be a useful Pro12 asset.
Ruan Pienaar is likely to be absent until the HEC starts due to his Boks role, so Paul Marshall will have a chance to get some momentum going again – he was brilliant when asked last year, but his opportunities were restricted at the later stages of the HEC. Its worth mentioning that Marshall-Pienaar looks an obvious solution to the outhalf issues, but Pienaar came to Ulster to prove himself a specialist 9, so he will not want to move out on a regular basis.
Ulster’s three-quarter line looks well-stocked and balanced – Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave both had their best professional seasons last year and coming kids Nevin Spence, Luke Marshall and Chris Farrell (Ooooooohh) will provide backup. Tommy Bowe has come home to contest the wing slots with Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy – Trimble is the most prosaic, but his boshes off the wing were a key setup point for Ulster attacks last season, Exhibit A being Gilroy’s try in Thomond – whoever misses out will be an improvement on the departed Ian Whitten in squad terms. Jared Payne is hoping to put an injury-hit first season behind him and, allied to the arrival of Bowe, the ouside backs look much more threatening this season – Terblanche was as safe as houses last year, but wasn’t exactly Isa Nacewa on the counter. Adam D’Arcy provides pace and broken-field expertise combined with an inability to pass off the bench. Can Ulster develop their Saffer-inspired gameplan to cut them loose?
Ulster have a benign HEC draw this season – all three home games will be won, and the timing of the fixtures means Castres away will be targeted. We think they can pick up that and another win plus enough bonus points to win the pool and earn a home quarter-final – the first knockout HEC game at Ravers since 1999. That would represent progress. After that, its a question of the Lady Luck. If Leinster and Clermont clear one or the other out of the HEC groups, a path could open up for Ulster to go further. But that itself may depend on the fitness of the starting pack and halves – it’s hard to imagine Ulster could survive long stretches while relying on the likes of Black, Diack, Williams and O’Connor.
In the Pro12, Ulster have tended to pick up momentum in the spring due to the lack of front-line internationals in their squad – one of the results of their success and development is that the likes of Deccie Fitz, Tuohy, Henry, Cave and Gilroy may get Deccie-d, and remove the March safety valve from consideration.
Verdict: The lack of depth in key positions is our biggest problem with Ulster. The loss of iHumph has not been adequately addressed, and the backrow unit has not been improved over the summer. The three-quarter line is now stacked, but getting the ball back there in decent shape is the challenge.
The front-liners are strong enough to go far in the HEC, but a win might be beyond them. If they get a bit of fortune, another HEC final is achievable, but a home quarter final should be the target for the season. It’s hard to look beyond that; if they get it, they should have a semi-final in them, then who knows. The under-powered backrow backups are going to be a problem in the Pro12 – Ulster are likely to be without more players in February and March than in previous years, and we can’t see them making the hay like they usually do. We think they will miss out on the play-offs for the second successive season.