Up in Ravers, the winds of change are in the air – Phase One of Project Humph feels like it is coming to a close. In 2010, Ulster signed Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenbosh and Ruan Pienaar to take a young and unsuccessful team and drag them up by the collar to be competitive in Europe and ultimately scoop up some silverware. BJ Botha was already there, but he was replaced by (the cheaper) John Afoa a year later when he decided he needed some more passion in his life. The coach was the homegrown Brian McLaughlin but the power behind the throne was the local hero Humph, who had seen the Celtic League-winning team of 2006 spectacularly implode after he retired.
The imposition of some Bok beef has done the trick – Ulster are now a bona fide European power, and the careful husbandry of an excellent generation has yielded internationals NWJMB, Wee PJ, Bamm-Bamm and Craig Gilroy; has given new life to the likes of Besty, Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble and has enticed Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson to re-join the revolution. McLaughlin was replaced by Mark Anscombe, who in turn appears to have the Sword of Damocles (Thornley101) hanging over him as regards the 2015/16 season, when Neil Doak is available at short odds to be promoted.
However, as of next season, only Pienaar of the big-name foreign brigade will remain – something that will definitely come as a surprise to the casual reader of the Indo, who may be under the impression that Ulster are not only wholly reliant on the foreign contingent, but are the only team to have ever played non-Irish players. Wannenbosh joined Castres the year before last, Muller is going to retire to the ostrich farm (or whatever) and, while acknowledging his unhappiness in Belfast, John Afoa is moving a very small bit closer to New Zealand – Gloucester. Pienaar himself turned down megabucks from Toulon to stay, clearly rating the quality of the Bibles in Belfast more like South Africa than the weather on the Riviera.
Ulster, again not to shock our readers, also have Irish players – and some of them are leaving too: Tom Court is taking his blame lightning rod and pitching up in
Samoa London Reading to play with London Samoa Irish Oirish; young guns Niall Annett, Chris Farrell and Adam Macklin are departing for new challenges at Worcester, Grenoble and Rotherham respectively; Paddy McAllister is joining Jeremy Davidson at Aurillac to re-kindle his career; and Average Joes Sean Doyle and James McKinney are off as well.
Ulster’s recruitment to replace these departing names, including no less than four props, has been rather underwhelming, to say the least. Indeed, on hearing the names of the players signed, the most likely reaction for even the most knowledgable of rugby fans is to ask ‘who the heck are these guys?’ Some of the glass-half-full merchants are comvinced that losing a disinterested Afoa and the underrated Court are actually positives, the hope being that Ulster can develop younger (and better) options – but that’s patently not the case. The pack at present looks woefully undermanned and short of beef for challenging on two fronts next year – and we are getting increasingly concerned. Here’s a quick run-through by position:
- Loose-head prop: replacing Tom Court was never going to be easy – just as he was the easiest man for any Irish coach to ditch, the under-appreciation of our favourite unsung hero continues. Ulster are replacing the 32-times capped Irish international with Ruadhri Murphy from the Brumbies, who has yet to get past the “promising” stage. Murphy has slipped down the pecking order in Canberra and his previously-stated dream of being
shunted all around Eden Park asa Wallaby are now on ice as he looks to fight it out with Callum Black for the Ulster 1 jersey. It’s positive to see a young Irish prop with some potential come on board, but he is 26 now and this will be his 4th club in eight seasons, and he has yet to impress a coaching team enough to make him a key player. It all sounds a bit John Andress-ish. It seems like Black will start initially.
- Tight-head prop: continuing in the proud tradition laid down by Botha and Afoa will be .. Dave Ryan, Zebre 3rd choice, and Wiehahn Herbst, who has a rather better dedigree, with 37 Sharks caps in 5 seasons. No South African prop is likely to be anything but technically excellent, but it goes without saying that if he was all that, he’d be going nowhere. Potential for sure, but a serious step down on the previous two incumbents. Because, given Deccie Fitz’ latest health news, it looks like incumbency is where Herbst will be at. He is likely to be Ulster’s new project player when Jared Payne has served his time, so he is here for the medium term. The case of Dave Ryan seems simply a matter of bringing an Irish player home – if Ulster are looking for him to play HEC rugby next year, they’re in trouble.
- Second row/flank: the retiring captain Muller is, on the face of it, being replaced by a somewhat like-for-like player – Franco van der Merwe of the
LiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiionsLions. But while Muller had 30 Springbok caps, van der Merwe has one – so it’s a step down, for sure, but it’s a different ask really. Replacing Muller’s first XV contribution will be put on the goals of one Iain Henderson – van der Merwe’s role is to take Henderson’s role as second row first reserve and occasional flanker and make it his own. It’s a pretty decent hire to be fair, for Ulster lack beefy forwards, and this is a pretty good one – he’s basically a bigger version of Robbie Diack
- Half-back: steeping into James McKinney’s size 10s is the returning iHumph, who flounced out of Ravers after being dropped for the HEC semi-final against Embra (Embra! In the HEC semi-final!! With Michael Bradley as coach!!!) in 2012. Humphreys pitched up in
Samoa LondonReading for a couple of seasons, and he is a good signing. He’s nearing the twilight of his career, but Ulster need backup for Wee PJ for the international breaks, and Stuart Olding should be allowed to concentrate on centre (more of which anon). Humphreys might defend like a saloon door, but he’s better than McKinney. Whatever his flaws, there’s some talent there and at Pro12 level he should be a valuable player.
This season, Ulster’s pack has at times looked in need of an injection of depth – the first team is excellent when everyone is there (Court, Best, Afoa, Muller, Tuohy, Fez, Henry, Wilson) but how often does that happen these days? Fez is always injured and the backups, NWJMB aside, aren’t top class. Diack, Black and Herring have looked game, but Stevenson is a squad man at best, Williams just doesn’t cut it at the highest level, then there is … er … Mike McComish and Neil McComb. The changes they have made don’t change that, and indeed, Sean Doyle has yet to be replaced. The rumour mill is whirring that yet another Shark, this time Keegan Daniel, could be tempted to jump on board, and it’s sorely needed.
The Ulster squad looks pretty unbalanced for next season – light on numbers up front, but stacked behind. Ulster could play a backline of Pienaar, Jackson, Marshall, Cave, Bowe, Trimble and Payne and have the luxury of leaving at least one of Wallace (assuming he’s still knocking around somewhere) , Olding and Gilroy out of the match-day squad altogether. Admittedly, its not Toulon levels of depth, but this is Ireland. The promising youngsters Mike Allen and Ricky Andrew are capable deputies at Pro12 level, but the pack backups struggle to be that sometimes.
One very interesting rumour doing the rounds is Jared Payne to Leinster – Ulster fans have gone all Connacht on this one (“How DARE they steal our players”) but it might be something to consider if a high enough bounty can be extracted. Leinster would look at Payne as an outside centre, as Joe Schmidt is likely to do, given the dishy face of Bob glowering at high balls and the rather gaping hole at 13, post you-know-who retiring.
Payne is currently second choice at Ulster in that shirt, and it’s a position where Ulster have options , unlike in the Oar Dee Esh (or “Tomond” for that matter). For Payne to take the 13 shirt he needs Gilroy to step into the 15 jersey and shift Cave – neither of which comes close to being warranted on this season’s evidence. We may have mild concerns over Payne’s defensive abilities in that key position, but given the desire of the Irish hierarchy is for him to be an outside centre and the needs of the other provinces, Ulster might not be able to get a higher trade-in for him again – and it might be time to cash in.
If Humph can use those legendary bargaining skills, and get a prop and some depth in the backrow, this might be something worth considering – let’s say Ulster managed to wrangle Jack McGrath and Dom Ryan out of D4, would that be so bad?
There are several factors at work here – a more pro-active Union with the appointment of David Nucifora, a pushy national coach who has political capital to burn, and something we have discussed before – the surfeit of props and backrows in Leinster versus centres in Ulster. Of course, all are contracted, but if everyone wants this to happen, it might just come to pass. If a nuclear-option trade like this is a win-win for both provinces, and a boon to the green shirt, why not?
Plus it would inject some life into the flagging Ulster (and Leinster – see Kirchner, Z.) recruitment process.