Conundrums in Key Positions

The great thing about the Heineken Cup knockout stages is there is no comeback. Here’s it’s do or die. At a higher standard of play and with increased pressure, unlike Munster, Ulster were found wanting.

It was something of a bloodless coup for Saracens – Ulster never laid a glove on them and Saracens just powered their way into the semi-finals. You sensed they had an extra gear available if Ulster flicked a switch, but they never needed it. The only positive for Ulster was their dominant scrum, but when your lineout isn’t functioning and the opposition backrow are dominant, that won’t matter. As a game, it was more reminiscent of Ulster’s defeat two years ago to the Saints in Milton Keynes that last years epic in Thomond Park, and that’s a worry.

Ulster effectively played five knockout matches last season (Leicester and Clermont in the final pool matches, Munster, Embra and Leinster). In each of those, barring the final, they brought tremendous physical clout to the table, the zenith of which was the near-win in the Marcel Michelin. This time out, they couldn’t compete. Allied to that, their attacking game was poor – when Ruan Pienaar wasn’t aimlessly kicking the ball away, he was passing out to a deep Paddy Jackson and a deeper again Luke Marshall. It was meat and drink to Brad Barritt and co.

Anscombe called it pretty well in the post-match interview, saying you’ve to throw the kitchen sink at these matches and Ulster were a little tentative. At least he showed an understanding of knockout rugby, even if it was after the event and more could possibly have been done from the sidelines – the non-use of Paul Marshall was odd, especially considering neither half looked on top of their game, and the impact Stuart Olding had when he came in.

If one compares the back-row and inside backs to last year’s same stage, its quite obvious Ulster have stepped down a gear. In the back row you have Ferris/Henry/Wannenbosh versus Henderson/Henry/Williams. As fine a player as Iain Henderson is and will be, he’s nothing like the blindside Fez is – it’s nothing to be ashamed of, most aren’t. Henderson is a young second row playing in a position where Ulster have a need – he played well, and he’s good enough to be knocking on the door of the Ireland team in a position that is not his natural one, but Stephen Ferris, when fit, is one of the best blindside flankers in the world.

At the back of the scrum, Wannenburg is a more rounded player than Nick Williams – not quite as destructive with ball in hand, but a good linker and a runner of smart lines. Wannenburg was one of Ulster’s most influential players in their key games last year – he created two tries at home to Leicester with deft handling, and he scored the decisive try in their nervy semi-final win. In contrast, Saracens read Williams’ intentions easily and stopped him in his tracks with ease. Williams has been much more effective than Ulster fans (and Munster fans) expected, but he doesn’t look like a player who will thrive at this rarefied level.

We said at the beginning of the year we worried for Ulster’s depth in the backrow – Williams has had a season beyond the wildest dreams of Ulster fans, yet there is still a need for Roger Wilson to get fully fit and firing at his 2011 level. Fez is going to Japan, and unless Henderson switches to blindside full-time (unlikely), Robbie Diack is virtually the only other contender. Henry’s excellence aside, the unit is not that intimidating, and is very thin. Perhaps a sniff around a player lower in the pecking order at another province is in order.

Turning to the inside backs, you have iHumph/Wallace versus Jackson/Marshall. The two younger lads are terrific prospects, but Wallace brings a decade of experience and nous, and Ulster are a more potent attacking outfit with him in tow. Its very difficult incorporating two younger players next to one another into a team and not seeing a dropoff in consistency and performance – Wallace is a player who can bring out the best in those around him, and, for all Marshall’s class, he isn’t there yet.

As for Pienaar, he has looked increasingly jaded this year. Between World Cups (2011), Tri-Nations & Rugby Championships (Summers 2010-12), Ulster (Winters 2010/11-2012/13) and Super Rugby for the Sharks (Summer 2010), he hasn’t had a decent rest since the winter of 2009/10. If Humph can somehow get Pienaar a holiday from the RC this summer, Ulster would be hugely grateful, and Luke Marshall and Jackson will be a year older and more experienced, and have hopefully a refreshed Wallace for direction, and Olding putting pressure on their jumpers.

Ulster still have a chance for silverware this year, but, right now, it seems more likely to end trophy-less, with question marks around key positions in the off-season. If you factor in the rumors that John Afoa might be going back home, it gets worse. Ulster’s most influential players in their breakout season last year were Afoa, Muller, Fez, Henry and Pienaar. For next year they face the prospect of two of them leaving and a third rapidly burning out – these are not good developments.

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28 Comments

  1. Their backrow lacked balance you had one speed guy in Henry who was relied on doing everything at the breakdown in defence and attack, that was the key difference. It amazes me how at underage and professional level, power often the first thing people look for and it is often the wrong one.

  2. Not Michael Bent

     /  April 11, 2013

    Would be greatly in agreement with you on the large part of that.

    I’d go a step further in the Nick Williams bashing- I can’t help but think he’s a poor man’s Andy Powell. He’s definitely a nice surprise in terms of the performances to date, but the ceiling for a player of that ilk is not great (and is certainly far below knockout of Heineken Cup standard).

    Would really be interested in Ulster bringing in a back row from one of the other provinces – maybe Rhys Ruddock, whose Leinster career has stalled somewhat, and whose presence might delay the likes of Conor Gilsenan/Jordan Coughlan coming through, or Dave O’Callgaghan from Munster, who with Stander and Dougall having come in, must be on the way out.

    I suppose my real reason for wanting this to happen is that I really want Henderson to start playing second row more consistently- as a country, we need him far more there than at 6.

    I also have questions marks over whether it will be Marshall or Olding at 12 next year. Have been really, really impressed by Olding, and as American football has proven lately, the whole concussion issue is a big one and can/should Marshall come back from 3 in two months?
    I’d like to see him skip the summer tour and just not bang his head off things for a bit

  3. Connachtexile

     /  April 11, 2013

    Agree with you about Marshall. You can’t be taking chances and Ulster have plenty of great backs like Olding and Nelson that could thrive with gametime. Ulster do need another backrower though. McComish is a very good squad player but he’s Rabo standard at best and Birch hasn’t come on as people hoped he would. Is there any young turk in the ulster academy who could come in and shore up the back row? IQ options are fairly scarce at the moment.

  4. I was at the game and – funnily enough – haven’t really been that keen to watch it since, so any observations come with that caveat.

    Overall, I think it was one game and too many things can be read into it – especially as there seems to be agreement that we didn’t play close to our best. We’ve been in poor form since January, the Leinster game – ie. one match – aside.

    Regarding Sarries having another gear… I sort of thought that too, watching live, but I think I’ve reassessed. Them saying it was their toughest and most physical game of the year I had assumed was pure politeness. But a look at the stats:

    http://www.espnscrum.com/heineken-cup-2012-13/rugby/match/167680.html

    shows that Ulster actually dominated many, many areas. But, when you factor in a too-wide-too-quick gameplan, high error count and most disappointingly a lack of conviction, a defeat isn’t so surprising. Especially against such an admirably committed side.

    Saracens have a brilliant line out and a simply wonderfully organised defence, which covered their (many, many) errors really well. I’ve never heard of any one player missing seven tackles before. We needed to attack the midfield harder and earlier in phase play with the express aim of destabilising their system. I don’t think we needed loads of space, just players in unfamiliar parts of the line, and we could have cut them apart (and, incidentally, this is the sort of gameplan that Clermont play beautifully).

    It’s very disappointing and Afoa leaving would be a huge loss. Hopefully we can turn our form around to secure a playoff spot and have a real tilt at the Pro12 title. I still think we’re a side on the up.

    PS. Don’t think we played badly or without physicality in last year’s HEC final, Leinster just better than us and played as close to their best as we did to ours – a very good match and no shame in losing to a superior outfit.

  5. Amiga500

     /  April 11, 2013

    Bold comment here – but I think if Hendo stays at 6, he’ll become a better player than Fez (in time).

    • Leinsterlion

       /  April 11, 2013

      Blasphemy!! Seriously though, Ferris is a machine, the prototype for a 6, doesnt he hold the record for cleans in the Irish team? I think Hendo would be best served adding a few KGs, filling out his frame and going into the row, hes the type of athlete we need in the row, hes a bit lanky for a 6. Dont think he’ll ever match Ferris as a 6, hasn’t shown that same abrasiveness coupled with explosiveness Ferris has/had.

      • Amiga500

         /  April 11, 2013

        The kid has just turned 21. Wait till he fills out.

        IMO, he’s currently ahead of 1F on the curve. His frame is suited to naturally carry more weight than Fez and he is already scattering fellas in the Pro12 and HEC (as seen against Sarries and the Saints).

        While it looks like Stevie may be off to distance shores (and to be honest, I think its probably the best move for him – I can’t see him playing long into his 30s), the blow for us is tempered by having someone as good as Hendo coming through.

        • Manga's League

           /  April 11, 2013
        • You might have a point on how Fez carries weight. I met Fez and Bowe once (ok I literally walked into them round a corner in a hotel when I was burdened with luggage and not looking where I was going) and was surprised that Bowe was taller and broader across the shoulder, while Fez looked gym-made. I wonder if that makes him more injury prone (you know, along with playing 6 and running through walls etc. etc.) ?

          • Peat

             /  April 11, 2013

            Let’s not forget the Manchild driving back Parisse when he thought he fancied a little dab down the blindside. Oh no you don’t Sergio. Or his first HEC cap, when he trotted on, packed down at blindside, and pretty much first thing a big lad comes down the blindside. Henderson makes the tackle, despite a decent hand off, and then promptly drives straight through the ruck winning the ball. I don’t think there’s any shortage of abrasiveness or explosive power with Henderson, remember him completely killing an attack in the Treviso game a couple of weeks back with an enormous midfield hit. And I reckon Henderson will hit Ferris’ weightlifting records in the Ireland squad; I’ve seen it said that his numbers in training are eerily similar to Fez’s.

            Best thing to do with Henderson would be to clone him and play 3 or 4 of him really.

  6. Leinsterlion

     /  April 11, 2013

    Honestly dont think Hendo was the right option at 6(granted he had a very good game) and Saffercens simply outmuscled the back row in the defensive collisions. Think a Diack(underrated by everyone imo), Williams, Henry backrow would have had the right amount of boshability coupled with Henry’s ground game. Hendos athleticism would have served Ulster better in the row, its a testament to the guy hes doing so well at 6 when its not his natural position and his body shape doesn’t seem suited to it.
    Williams, I felt he wasnt unleashed in the right situations, we have seen what he can do from certain positions, felt Ulsters tactics were to blame for Williams ineffectiveness. He is an effective player but when its not happening(his Munster days) he is better off the field imo. The Williams bashers are being overly harsh, hes a 120kg lump use him as a battering ram, not moved all over the park playing wide-wide ball.
    Jackson looks to have caught a very serious dose of Kidneyitis and looks in need of radical treatment to restore him to full health. This ties into Marshall, if your 10 is standing in the 12 spot I dont think you can criticise the 12 for poor performance, the guy is quality but had no chance outside Jackson.
    Surprised there is no mention of Best, the guy has fallen of a cliff performance wise, from a locked on starter for the Lions to probably making the tour by default.
    Think Ulster got caught on the hop, a lack of depth and injury coupled with a few key players going off the boil at the same time, I hate to use the word, but its just bad luck.
    Situation isnt that bad compared to Leinster who have massive upheaval and serious aging all over the park combined with callow young guys who have never looked like doing it. Compare Ulsters needs to Leinster, starting quality Lock to sub/replace for Cullen, scrumhalf, a center(if Drico retries), and two outside backs capable of covering the back three and 13 if possible. Ulster, by contrast, are really are looking to sign some quality depth, they have no serious issues with their first teamers(Ferris, Afoa aside). Ulster just need a few more players to cover for injury, they dont need to draft in starting caliber players like Leinster. At most they need a prop, backup 6/8 and back 3 player, possibly a quality center option if Wallace packs it in.

  7. Rory'Okane_Raz_

     /  April 11, 2013

    Robin Copeland would be the perfect type of player for Ulster to sign, was championship player of the year last season, has played very well for cardiff blues this season, can play 6 and 8, but unfortunately has a year left on his contract. Connor Joyce is a good young player, who can play 6 or 8 and is an Irish u-20 international.Jordan Coughlan would be good, but leinster are trying to convert him into a centre. Jack Conan would be a good signing as would Gilsenan (However blindside seems to be the problem not openside) However none of the young leinster backrowers want to leave which i find bemusing considering they have at 8) heaslip, au’va, jordi murphy and conan, 7)so’b, jennings, ryan, gilsenan, van der filer, 6)McLaughlin, ruddock, marshall, coughlan. surely some of them would be better of moving instead of stagnating in the A.I.L.

    • Connachtexile

       /  April 11, 2013

      Agreed and the only one of them even close to retirement is Jennings. If not this year then next year one or two of them will be moved on. Au’va for a start.

  8. Peat

     /  April 11, 2013

    Think I’m gonna end up repeating a lot of what Leinster Lion just said…

    It was bad luck and bad timing. Henry didn’t look fully fit. Best’s form has been slipping and slipping. I don’t think Muller was fully fit either. Wilson not available – I think if he had been he’d have been a better call than Williams. Ferris not available – we all knew it well in advance, but always a griveous loss. And Afoa’s mind back in New Zealand with his new daughter – congrats to the big man. Would we have had the pack to beat them if all that had been the reverse? I reckon so, we were up against it with what we had from the get-go, everyone fit and in form and it’s a different ball game. Likewise in the backs – amazed Whiff didn’t mention Payne looking rusty, that’s a huge loss from the start of the season, and you’d never say no to a fit Tommy Bowe either.

    Ulster were stupid too. Trying to pass round a blitz defence without putting them on the back foot doesn’t sound like a recipe for winning much. Throw in some unusual errors, Saracens doing what they do well, and you get a bastard of an afternoon. But about 2/3rds of Ulster’s first choice team were either absent or notably not what they could be beforehand and that’s huge.

    Of course, injuries are part and parcel of the modern game, and you’ve got to build that depth – Ulster have not done yet that, especially not in the forwards – and there are a few departures to come too. But lets look at it

    Afoa – Common consent amongst the rumourmongers is he’s leaving if we find another player, and will honour his contract if we can’t. So we still have a top class TH next season. Season after is worrying, but hopefully one of Macklin, Lutton or Paddy Mac can step up.

    Ferris – Henderson might not be a natural six, but he’s a natural back-row. He played 8 in his final year at school at least. Body shape? There’s plenty of lanky lean back-row/blindsides around – Simon Taylor, Kaino’s not that broad, Croft, Tom Wood – and he’s got the fast-twitch for it. I stand in the crowd that says he’s better suited to blindside than lock and can become better than Ferris. There is our replacement right there, he needs to work hard on his breakdown skills, but he’s 20 – of course he has something to learn. Just as Jackson, Marshall, Olding, Gilroy and Herring will. A lot of this team are on upwards curves at the moment.

    I don’t think there’s any need to panic. Learn lessons, yes, but Ulster should still be strong next season. I am bullish about that.

    • Amiga500

       /  April 11, 2013

      Add to that, Sean Doyle is 22/23 and is a good (IQ) prospect at 7…

      • Peat

         /  April 11, 2013

        If he recovers properly from that broken leg, yes.

    • ehhweasel

       /  April 11, 2013

      I must be missing something but from what peak has Rory Best’s form been slipping? I’ve never seen a performance from him that really looked Lions standard. There was a recent post where a Luke Fitzgerald detractor was silenced with a barrage of youtube clips. I know it’s not the same with frontrows but I’d really like if somebody could point to a few games where he deserves to be considered one of the best in the northern hemisphere.

      • Peat

         /  April 13, 2013

        In my eyes, Best spent last season being the best hooker in the NH not called William Servat, and maybe better than him and all. Its hard to point at anything in particular, as it was a brilliance born of the little things – breakdown work, tackle count, little carries here and there – he’s not like Brits, so I’d struggle to point at a match.

        If you disagree, fair enough. But according to Sky, we had the best lineout in the HEC last year. That is certainly a peak, and that has certainly plummeted. More than his general play tbh.

  9. zdm

     /  April 11, 2013

    I can’t see Ulster taking a back row from another province to cover the flanks – their issue is not having the cover for HC matches, they are well served at Pro12 level with what they have – I just don’t see how Rhys Ruddock would strike more fear in to the hearts of Clermont or Quins next year than Hendo did this year. (As an aside, Hendo looks like the old-style number 8 and I’d be interested to see him get a run there). I think they will opt for a NIQ at 6 to add a bit of big game mentality to the back row – this is probably what they wanted Wilson for but his season has sputtered thus far.

    To be fair on Williams, he’s a bit of a Ronseal player and is devestatingly effective as a human bowling ball. I don’t think many players expected him to start throwing the ball about just because Ulster needed another dimension against a stout defense. Ulster lost because they lacked the game management skills to change their game plan when they were dominating the play but chocked by an efficient defense. In this regard, they really miss PWal. Jared Payne is a bright spark in the team but as a full back, Sarries recognised booting every turn-over regardless of the the relative efficacy of an individual kick was the best way to make him play within himself and nullify his attacking threat.

    • Not Michael Bent

       /  April 12, 2013

      My point wasn’t so much that Hendo can’t play 6 (or maybe even 8), it’s was that when you look at the second row options in this country, we’d be far better served with him moving his considerable talents there than 6, where he is going to find himself in a long line of talented young lads.

      First choice second row pairs.
      Munster: Paulie, D Ryan,
      Leinster: Leo, Toner,
      Ulster: Muller, Tuohy,
      Connacht: McCarthy, Swift

      Of those, none will be under 30 by the time the next world Cup comes around (except for Toner, god help us all).
      You can suggest the likes of Mick Kearney, Mark Flanagan or Ian nagle might come good, but Hendo is the only possible second row in this country who will be under 30 at the next WC and has proven himself to be anything close to international quality

      Second Row is becoming the new tight head prop, so we have to encourage guys who have the size to play there to do so, rather than getting converted to over-sized back rows.

      • Peat

         /  April 12, 2013

        The issue here is that Ireland might need second rows, but Ulster need a blindside right now. Unless the IRFU explicitly orders Ulster to treat him as a second row – he’s a blindside. I suspect the IRFU might press hard for Ulster to sign a big name NIQ blindside season after next… not sure that suits Ulster mind, but if they agree to extend Pienaar’s contract, it may indeed be possible.

  10. jojo

     /  April 11, 2013

    Big fan of gilroy, but his loose kicking cost Ulster. (his aimless kick set up ashtons try).
    He would have been better off taking the contact. He’s done the same for Ireland on a couple of occasions.

    IH , that run by him proved that he has the physiciality required, and well beyond his years.
    Think he boshed 5 guys..

  11. mikebrad

     /  April 11, 2013

    I think another area is out half. Pienaar is a better scrummie, olding looks to be a centre and o’Connor is not very good. A backuup/challenge to Jackson would be welcome. We need to sort out the lineout both from a hooker and second row perspective. When Muller is missing/injured it really suffers. Is niall annett a good prospect?

    There are postives though with Lutton doing well against Leinster, lewis Stevenson improving and Michael Allen also looking a nice prospect

    • Connachtexile

       /  April 11, 2013

      James McKinney is coming back for next year.

  12. ORiordan

     /  April 12, 2013

    I was at the game as well and it was far more disappointing than the other HEC knock-out defeats against Saints and Leinster. At least in those games, Ulster were competitive for a good proportion of the time.

    I agree with the points made about Williams, He has been most effective when 5m out (you know he is getting the ball, but stopping him is another thing…) or the surprise factor when he bursts through the centre of a ruck, but there was no surprises against Saracens.

    I still don’t know how much of Ulster’s performance could be put down to a coaching failure or a player failure. Sarries did what Sarries do so I can’t believe the coaching team didn’t formulate a gameplan to deal with this… however Ulster just played into their hands so was it a half arsed game plan, or too many players just didn’t perform, or a bit of both?

  13. I wonder whether the Sarries game also points to the enduring power of provincialism in Irish rugby. Granted Ulster needed a performance more than a result against Leinster, but managed both after a dire run of games. But the fact that they couldn’t so it two weeks in a row, even for a Heiny q/f, is telling. Not that they consciously treated the Rabo game as more ‘important’ but that the legacy of a shared history is harder to shift even in the era of professionalism and multinational squads.

  14. I think Jackson is a big big problem, and has been very lucky with the lack of criticism he’s received…I don’t blame him for the Saracens match, and you won’t see me pining for the days of iHumph either, but the fact is Jackson fails spectacularly to influence games. He never grabs games by the scruff of the neck like Sexton, Madigan or the ROG of old, and when the game is going against them he gets deeper and deeper. He looked OK against France only because Murray was running the show, and he only makes it through Ulster games because Pienaar holds his hand every step of the way. Too often Jackson just shovels the ball on, shovelling his responsibility away with it. He may have the skills(though I’ve seen nothing yet to suggest he does, at U20, HCup or International level) to succeed but primarily I think it’s his attitude and mental strength that needs to improve. It’s unfair on such a young player to be given the 10 jersey for a club with the ambition and the resources of Ulster, but he hasn’t handled it well at all so far. Personally I think the worst decisions of the Kidney regime(hard to pick just 2) are his refusal to select Madigan over an embarrassingly past it ROG, and a bog standard 10 like Jackson; and bringing Paddy Wallace off a beach to play against SBW and Conrad Smith.

    • zdm

       /  April 14, 2013

      Irish rugby teams almost singularly favour the style of 9/10 play I like to call Pass The Ball to Johnny, previously known as Pass The Ball to Ronan which is a grand way to play rugby and given the talent available to Ireland in these cases, it is the most suitable way but it is not the only way.

      I’ve said before, it doesn’t really matter who dominates the 9/10 axis as long as someone does. Essentially, this is the link between the set piece and open field rugby – you need it to happen quickly, cleanly and decisively. You need a General to decide on plays and boss the players and you need an Executioner who is less involved in the decision making but is accurate and quick with the ball but it doesn’t matter who does what. Irish and English teams tend to favour an Executioner at 9 and a General at 10, the French tend to swap the roles about but it doesn’t matter.

      At Ulster, Pienaar is a General and Jackson is an Exectutioner. Anyone not familiar with Ulster this season, I’d refer you to the Fiji match for examples of Jackson’s strengths – deadly accurate, fast passing to a full-tilt backline, last minute pass out the side door etc.

      Ulster get the best out of him because they recognize his strengths (and weaknesses) and play to those. Ireland got a decent performance out of him without anything spectacular because they didn’t – the rigid adherence to one tactical approach regardless of personnel was a pet hate of mine over recent years.
      If Ireland play Sexton and Murray (or Marshall), the 9/10 axis covers the bases. If they play Jackson and Reddan (or Boss), it covers the bases. If they play Jackson and Murray, it doesn’t and you don’t get the best out of the combination.

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