2012/13 Season Preview: Ulster

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.

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  1. Amiga500

     /  August 30, 2012

    2 missed recruitments – scrumhalf Michael Heaney in from Doncaster Knights and Aussie openside Sean Doyle (Irish qualified – hardly a shocker given the name!!) from Southern Districts, Sydney.

    Both have looked pretty decent pre-season and Heaney’s initial 4 month deal is almost surely going to be extended.

  2. Amiga500

     /  August 30, 2012

    Oh and agree re. the worries @ 10 – both PJ and NOC looked both average and error prone against Newcastle.

    NOC actually looked pretty decent against Leicester.

    Didn’t see the Bayonne match so cannot really comment.

  3. radge fan

     /  August 30, 2012

    Pienaar is going to be very ring rusty when he gets back to Ulster from SA. So far he is getting 20 minute cameos on the wing. Its going to be a very long season for him, though I suppose they could rest him for the 6Ns as presumably SA will want him for the Autumn Internationals as well.

    Ulster are very unfortunate to have a NIQ player who is wanted by his country of origin.

    • @radgefan When Pienaar comes on for one of the wings, Hougaard goes to the wing and Pienaar plays at the base of the scrum. SA have regularly used Hougaard in this way – they play a wide-wide pacy game with a “substitute 9” (Hougaard) if the main one is not immediately at the ruck, but Pienaar is solely a scrum-half for the Boks these days

      • radge fan

         /  August 30, 2012

        Well, that must be some comfort for Ulster that he gets to play 20 mins as a substitute SH for the Boks per game rather than on the wing!

        • Radge Fan, don’t get your knickers in too much of a twist over it. I’d be very sursprised if Ulster didn’t feel they were getting value for money with Ruan Pienaar in terms of game time or quality of performance.

    • Rava

       /  August 30, 2012

      Can’t say I agree with everything you have written. Seems to me it was penned two months ago and left on the shelf to be aired this week.
      There is a confidence running through Ravenhill at the minute. Players like Black, Diack, L Marshall and Chris Farrell are performing well and will be a match for anyone in the Pro12. I am a lot more confident of our ability to play without the front line players this year than I was last time.

      As for Paddy Jackson, I’ll leave Johann Muller to answer that one: –

      “And then a guy like Paddy Jackson you know there’s a reason he played for Ireland Under 20’s…. why he was the captain of that side and…. why he played in a Heineken cup final at the age of 20 years old…he’s got great ability ….I’m very comfortable to have him at 10”

  4. Rocky

     /  August 30, 2012

    With Luke Marshall and Chris Farrell playing well at centre, another option will be to use Paddy Wallace more at 10, so there is more cover than you might think. Also, I think Nick Williams may just surprise a lot of people this season

  5. Aird

     /  August 30, 2012

    Wannaberg wanted to stay , Ulster wanted to keep him, but Dublin wouldnt sanction an extension to his contract.
    so far Doyle at wing forward and Herring at Hooker are both showing promise and starting against Glasgow.

    • radge fan

       /  August 30, 2012

      Surely its “Dublin will only sanction 1 year extensions to NIQs once they reach the age of 30.” Munster are lucky that Doug Howlett puts up with that scenario, though in fairness they re-signed him even though he was injured so there must be lots of goodwill and trust there despite it not being written in ink.

      • I am told by some legal eagle chums that the proposed IRFU restriction on contracts for NIQs is potentially illegal – looks like extensions are quietly being granted – Nacewa got one too

  6. Adam

     /  August 30, 2012

    Think it’s harsh to say Williams couldn’t get his game at Aironi, he started when fit and scored 6 tries in 12 Pro12 games last season, he will do a job at that level and thats what he is there for. He’s not there to be the focal point of the team which is where Munster wanted him.

    • radge fan

       /  August 30, 2012

      I agree with you Adam. Williams could be a great signing for Ulster. He knows the league and has probably made all his lifestye mistakes at this stage (though, be warned, I think he scored 2 trys on his Munster debut and got man of the match)!

  7. zdm

     /  August 30, 2012

    Ulster swapped out one eight and brought two in – Nick Williams is there to allow Ulster to play Henry at flanker all season (I say all season because unless Deccie looks in his wardrobe and finds a tiger costume, he ain’t gonna change his stripes).
    O’Connor has be brought in to play Pro12 – he looks more confident and ten times bigger than 18 months ago and I’m not nearly as worried about him as I was when I heard he was coming back.
    Ulster are going a long way to making life cushy for Paddy Jackson, beafing up the backrow, signing his old class mate at 9 and surrounding him by seasoned internationals. It’s make or break for him but he has shown glimpses of being the next big thing for Ulster at 10. I still think that Jermy Staunton could have come in to lend a hand, maybe take a few of the away games in the HEC groups but it looks like the coaching staff are happy with what they’ve got – the opportunity to use a NIQ slot for 10 was not taken and Williams was signed instead.

  8. Rava

     /  August 30, 2012

    Can’t say I agree with everything you have written. Seems to me it was penned two months ago and left on the shelf to be aired this week.
    There is a confidence running through Ravenhill at the minute. Players like Black, Diack, L Marshall and Chris Farrell are performing well and will be a match for anyone in the Pro12. I am a lot more confident of our ability to play without the front line players this year than I was last time.

    As for Paddy Jackson, I’ll leave Johann Muller to answer that one: –

    “And then a guy like Paddy Jackson you know there’s a reason he played for Ireland Under 20’s…. why he was the captain of that side and…. why he played in a Heineken cup final at the age of 20 years old…he’s got great ability ….I’m very comfortable to have him at 10″

    • Johann Muller would say that, though, wouldn’t he? 🙂 We’re forecasting Ulster get a home quarter final in the Heineken Cup and probably make it beyond that stage. Hardly doomsaying…

  9. Thomas A

     /  August 30, 2012

    Nick Williams is getting all kinds of stick from everyone, but I agree with a few here in that he mightn’t be such a bad thing for the pro 12, and wasn’t nearly as bad at Arioni as is made out here. Sean Doyle may make the pro12 first team by mid season (if he is not already there, and provided he stays), since he is a dedicated openside. And I think Diack is gonna get more starts at 6, or as an off the bench backrow option. And Henderson getting whatever game time will give extra depth.

    McComish is the one guy I have doubts about, but I could be proved wrong. Also Ali Birch will certainly get more game time at 7, not only is he dedicated to that position but he is one of the ravens best players, so a semi-promotion for him looks like a no brainer.

    Callum Black looked good in the friendly’s, and Anscombe has commented on how impressed he is, technical in the scrum, more likely to win penalties maybe. And lastly Neil McComb has become a fully signed up member of the mission to add to the strength in the 2nd row, and he plays an okay blindside so its a well deserved move. There isn’t the first team competition for places that Lenister has, but who else really has that, so its looking better than you’re letting on.

    Lastly, I was a fan of Humphrey’s but he blew so hot and cold we are on par probably better without him.

  10. Good to see everyone so positive on Ulster and even Nick Williams! I wouldn’t want people thinking we’re too down on Ulster – that’s not the case. We’re just naturally cautious people! We’ve long been fans of the group of young players Ulster have coming through the ranks, but this year Ulster really need a few of them to come through in a big way to provide that layer of depth. Last year Luke Marshall and Nevin Spence spent most of the year on the treatment table, hopefully this year they can really kick on. By all accounts pre-season has been very positive. But it’s still only potential in a lot of cases and we’re reluctant to get carried away just yet.

    As for Nick Williams – if he stays fit and keeps up his try-scoring record then we’ll stand corrected, but it’s wildly presumptuous to say he’s ‘made all his lifestyle mistakes at this stage’ on the basis of… what exactly?

  11. Bowe Gathers

     /  August 31, 2012

    Going down to Ravers tonight and there really is a buzz about the place; young squad, hard core of older tough nuts and a serious vibe of almost Leinster-esque confidence and damn straight too. Why shouldn’t the red hand gang exceed expectations again this year? I’d agree that this is almost as cautious as a D. Kidney team sheet WoC – show some love! Also really keen to see Luke Marshall, ever since the Leinster/Ulster v Munster/Connaught in the Aviva all those years ago I’ve been waiting for the blonde Bod’s second coming (against inferior opposition that day, but he truly looked special.) Stand up boys, Ulster are coming.

    • Great stuff, Bowe Gathers! Enjoy the game tonight. Great to hear the old Ulster confidence is back, it’s been absent too long! Ravers on a friday night, is there anything better? This (Leinster) half of WoC had his first taste of it last year for the Leicester game (what luck, eh?) and it was his highlight of the season. Tonight I’ll be watching on the box (sole fillets and bottle of Sancerre in the fridge!) and taking notes on how ‘ver yoof’ get on. Rugger’s back. Hip hip.

      • Its the Ulster half here now – I’m uber-excited! I’m cautious as we have so many youngsters, but our first XV is cracking and its going to be a great season! SUFTUM

        PS 100% agree on Marshall – unfortunate year for him last year, and bags of potential. We though 12 months ago he could have PWal’s shirt by year end – perhaps that is a bit excitable, but we’re hoping for big things.

  12. Rava

     /  September 3, 2012

    I thought Marshall (Luke) looked 🙂 a class act on Friday night.

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