Kiss me Quick, Cowboy

It’s a new dawn at Ulster – for the first time since a fresh-faced ruddy-cheeked youngster was studying Law at Oxford and putting the Irish in London Irish, the season starts without Humph at Ravers. After finishing his playing career, he went upstairs and worked with Shane Logan on building Ulster into a proper professional setup – the academy, stadium and on-pitch development stand as testament to the road travelled (not that Humph gets full credit of course, didn’t Rory McIlroy pay for it all anyway?). Now he’s off to Glaws to try and take a talented but flaky looking squad to heights not seen in Kingsholm since the heyday of Lesley Vainikolo.  Last we saw of him he’d appointed Laurie Fisher as head coach and George North was running amok through his team’s defence: “Smithers, I’m beginning to think that Homer Simpson is not the brilliant tactician I thought he was”.

One thing Humph loved in his role as glum-faced box-dwelling long jacket-wearing Ulster capo was a compliant coach to take training while he made the real decisions behind the scene. One of Logan’s first moves with Humph out of the picture was to welcome Anscombe back to work with a shiny P45 and to hell with the consequences. So now Les “Kissy” Kiss is the acting Ulster coach and it ties Ulster right into Joe Schmidt’s setup for the season – for good or ill.

The Ulster players didn’t even bother to play the game and give Anscombe a happy send off, content instead to talk about how great Kissy was and how they were looking forward to working with him. With quasi-forwards coach Johann Muller back home to somewhere – anywhere – warm and sunny, it’s a brand new team in Ravers. Will it be a warm and sunny year? Let’s start to pick holes.

So, Les Kiss then .. didn’t he invent the choke tackle? Kissy originally came into the Ireland setup with Deccie back in 2008 – he started off as defence coach, then became, at one point, defence and attack coach as Deccie’s ticket descended into a dogs dinner. He resumed his specialist defensive duties under Joe Schmidt, and Ireland had an excellent time, conceding just four tries in their victorious Six Nations campaign. Kiss is universally popular with players and is a thoughtful and intelligent coach – he would make a good choice as permanent coach, but the fact remains he isn’t permanent. Joe Schmidt is his boss, and if the choice needs to be made between a selection Schmidt would prefer to see and one that Kiss wants to maximise Ulster’s chances in a particular game, Kiss might be in a bit of a bind.  At best it’s a decent makeshift placeholder.

When will they actually pick a new permanent coach then? We don’t know – the complication comes from the Super Rugby season and the World Cup – if Ulster want Kiss, they’ll need to wait 12 months. If they want an experienced sub-SR level coach from the Southern Hemisphere, they’ll need to wait 12 months. Either way, they might be able to make an appointment this year, but probably not until after Christmas. It’s not ideal, but clearly deemed preferable to another year of Cowboy. Don’t forget – Muller took the forwards in training for a lot of last year, and his input was going to be lost anyway. Ulster have a pretty stable institutional setup by now – they should be able to wear this, and Kissy keeps some continuity for the international brigade – himself, Besty, Chris Henry and Dan Tuohy should be able to share a Mini down to Carton House.

Ok cool – so coaching seems like it might even be a net positive. Speaking of Muller, how have they replaced him? Off the pitch, it will be difficult to replace Muller, but on the pitch, his influence has been in decline in recent years. NWJMB will be earmarked to replace him in the second row with Muller-lite Franco vd Merwe pencilled in to Henderson’s second row-blindside role. At least until Henderson got injured.

A second row injury eh? Sounds familiar.  I know – Ulster have struggled to get their first choice engine room on the pitch in recent years – Dan Tuohy has struggled to stay fit in particular. Their depth in the pack is not great – with Henderson now out, they are one injury away from having to start Lewis Stevenson in the ERCC – not a recipe for success against Bakkies and Ali Williams. If Ulster end the season with Henderson and Tuohy fit and flying, they will be in a good place, but the backups aren’t really there.

Speaking of backups, Ulster bade farewell to both props last year – how are they replacing them? Bang on – John Afoa went home to New Zealand to Glaws with Humph  and Patsy Court managed to get a 3-year contract that Ulster wouldn’t match from Lahn Oirish. They have replaced Afoa with Wiehann Herbst and brough Ruadhri Murphy back from the Brumbies. Perhaps the most important change is Allen Clarke getting the forwards coach job – Clarke is very highly regarded and is credited as a big influence on the Ulster scrum in recent years. Herbst had a good start, admittedly against the Scarlets, but he’ll need to keep it up, for Ulster won’t be going too far if they are relying on Deccie Fitz to stay fit.

Sadly, Fez won’t be around. I know – don’t start the tears. Diack-Henry-Wilson is an acceptable ERCC-level backrow, but (again, depth!) after that you’re looking at Nick Williams. Skittling tiny Wels scrum halves and carrying for 65m against Zebre might all be some harmless Pro12 fun, but he’s not at ERCC level.

Ok – let’s talk about good things – Stuart Olding – what a player. What a player is right – this early in his career, he was right to take a long time to get fit and recover from a serious injury. He sparkled at the tail end of 2012/13 and got into the Ireland team (minus its Lions) for a North America tour – he looked excellent against the Scarlets and a source of some much-needed creativity. Ulster were horrendous in the red zone last year – if they went over three phases in the opposition 22, you could almost guarantee a knock-on or holding on penalty – some clinicality was highly desirable, and Olding could be the guy to provide it. The bigger question is where he will play – PJ has a lock on the 10 jersey so he is competing with Bamm-Bamm, Darren Cave and Jared Payne at centre. An interesting combination Kissy tried in the second half last week was Marshall-Olding – we often wonder if this isn’t the long-term solution for Ulster – Payne’s defence at 13 doesn’t fill us with warmth.

Yeah – the Southern press seem to have him inked at 13 – that is presumably driven by Schmidt. You’d think so alright. The flipside of One More Year is that we have no outside centre with the RWC 12 months away – the Argentina tour wasn’t a massive success in that regard and the shirt is clearly up for grabs. Joe will undoubtedly want Payne to get some game time there, particularly ahead of November, where he likely to see Test action. If Kiss doesn’t see Payne as one of his first choice centres, it might get awkward for him, but then – all the alternatives are Irish-qualified too, so it’s a bit of a lab run anyway.

What’s the target then? Well, Ulster got a stinker of a draw in the ERCC, but they qualified from their pool with an equally stinking draw three seasons ago. They’ve reached four knockout stages in a row, and will be disappointed in they don’t continue that run. The fixtures are ok for Ulster – they will be aiming for 9 match points against the Scarlets in the double header then hope to have their destiny in their own hands for the final pool game at home to the Tigers. Still, anything further than the QFs might be a stretch, unless they get a home draw, which looks very tough. Domestically, they want a pot. Badly. The Pro12 is a legitimate target and the idea of a home final in a white-hot Ravers, preferably against Leinster, will have Ulster fans panting.

Ulster under Cowboy (and Muller) were a tough and obdurate side that were difficult to break down but struggled to score tries in the opposition 22. They also seemed to play by numbers a bit sometimes – it might seem something small, but when was the last time you saw Ulster have a restart strategy – PJ booting it long to the opposition winger then settling for a lineout is Jurassic rugby. The arrival of a new voice, particularly one as imaginative as Kissy, might give Ulster that (hold your nose, here comes Gerry) X-factor they need to beat the best sides in big games. With a bit of luck with injuries in the pack, Ulster have a sniff of silverware this year – how ironic for that to happen in Humph’s first season out.

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35 Comments

  1. Last season was a bit of an abomination to be fair. The bad news is that we’re on track to become the new Clermont, always the bridesmaid that everyone else kinda likes for their pluckiness.

    The good news is that unlike Clermont, changes are happening (whether we like it or not) before it can really sink in. The real question is whether the pack can front up to the likes of Leicester, Toulon and Leinster. Based on pre-season and the Scarlets game defense might be a little shakey too (but if Kiss is taking a Super rugby gung-ho attitude to tactics and attitudes and just throwing tries at everyone I won’t complain too much). Obviously only one game in it’s hard to tell where Kiss is taking us gameplan-wise, but as long as it’s something discernible I’ll be happy.

    One thing that’s struck me however is how media-shy he’s being. I don’t think I’ve seen more than maybe one interview (with Doak generally fielding everything). Could be a sign of his interim-ness but I’d still like to hear more of his thoughts, rather than hearing all and sundry sing his praises.

    Nail on the head in terms of pack depth. Hopefully Kiss does a better job of developing the second strings than Anscombe did (I can’t really remember when the last time was other than our most recent trip to Thomond where we did any meaningful squad rotation). The perfect example is Meyer starting Pollard against BNZ, with his reasoning being “when the hell are we meant to give him big match experience for RWC2015 if we don’t do it now?”

    Olding’s comeback could not have come at a better time really. He essentially inspired our run to the Pro12 final two seasons ago (we were already safe, but *damn* did he make us look good), and we need some inspiration again now to get us on our feet again. I’d be surprised if the Ireland squad for November didn’t involve at least three Ulster centres (and a beard).

    • I think the return of a certain iHumph had some impact on our resemblence to a sieve – he’s obviously a bit of a saloon door himself, but shuttling players around the defensive line to hide him can leave small gaps as well

      • Ah yeah of course. At least in bigger matches we can *makes small sacrifice* rely on PJ being a brick wall.

    • Maybe Les Kiss doesn’t want to be too synonymous as the Ulster head honcho and is keeping a lower profile because:
      a) He knows his days are numbered with a replacement being lined up
      b) He needs to tread carefully with the other provinces with the conflict of interest between information on their players for Ulster’s benefit and Ireland’s benefit

      On iHumph, given Ulster’s previous back-up 10s have been NOC and McKinney, I’ll take iHumph over them any day. Yeah, I know he can be a liability in defence, but personally I see his ability to unlock defences as a more valuable asset as it is more difficult to achieve.

  2. Yossarian

     /  September 11, 2014

    Ulster shouldn’t have the same problem converting possession into points with iHumphries and Olding involved. The ease humphries found space against scarlets with delayed passing was lovely. Defence on the other hand might mean a lot of high scoring encounters when he is playing. Ulster have a host of backs the other provinces would be envious off. I don’t think there is a front five capable of getting the required foothold without Henderson developing and one of those props turning into an unexpected Jem.

  3. O'Riordan

     /  September 11, 2014

    “..putting the Irish in London Irish…” Slightly OT, but I can remember seeing D Humph playing for London Irish back in the late 90s, before he moved back to Ulster, and the team was pretty well all Irish back then!

  4. Hairy Naomh Mhuire

     /  September 11, 2014

    If Bam Bam & Olding are pencilled in as first choice at centre (looks pretty good) & with Trimble & Bowe nailed on, is it possible that at least one from Payne, Cave & Gilroy could (usual caveats aside) start getting a little frustrated?? Will Joe see this as best use of resources? If for one moment we imagine the following lining out at #13 in the ERCC – Olding (U), Payne (L), Earls (M), Henshaw (C), could we not start feeling a little better about squaring that particular circle come RWC? (Now hitting ‘Post Comment’ with a deep sense of foreboding!!!)

    • curates_egg

       /  September 11, 2014

      We’ll take one of Cave or Payne if you’re shunting them on.

      • Stephen

         /  September 11, 2014

        You can have Payne! Olding-Cave should be our centre partnership.

        Olding can find gaps where they simply do not exist, whilst Cave essentially organises our back defence, as well as being a handy distributor himself. Marshall is an impact centre, when used correctly; Payne is a full-back with an ego the size of the 13 jersey but no ability for it (he made 2 – 2! – tackles against Scarlets – where the feck was he?!).

        • Mike

           /  September 12, 2014

          Might be a bit controversial this, but IMO Marshall is a poor player. I’m sure he is keen as mustard and is great in the gym, but his skill levels always leave me frustrated. Knocks on the ball a lot and has very poor basic skills (including no idea how to kick).

          The concussions also struck me as someone who is very brave and enthusiastic but lacks basic technique.

    • Yes, they certainly might – but then again with injury records being as they are, it’s entirely possible there’ll be enough match-time for everyone.

      Craig Gilroy is in my ‘needs a big season’ column. The memory of that Thomond Park try and test debut against Argentina is starting to fade.

  5. Peat

     /  September 11, 2014

    Me, myself, reckon the real replacement for Angry Tom is Warwick, who’s been ‘pinch me I’m dreaming’ levels of impressive. He’s starting against Zebre in what I think will be our first choice front row for important games and I’m pretty excited to get a second glimpse of him and Herbst. That’s an old school front row right there.

    The recent news about losing Les Kiss puts a different spin on this all – but the dogs seem pretty confident that we’ve got someone good lined up. Wish I knew who.

    I’m feeling bullish, providing the pack can stay fit, as the depth there is wafer-thin. The backs depth is silly and if everyone hit form and was fit, there’d be some real selection problems. No, that doesn’t mean the others can have any of our lot, although there’s a certain logic to swapping Payne and Allen for, say, Ruddock and Dougall. But there we go, that doesn’t seem to be happening, so hopefully some of the short-term triallists can have Herring/Tuohy like impacts. Re Payne and centre, Schmidt’s not the guy bringing him up at press conferences, it’s the media that is, I think he’d be happy to bring up if it was his own idea. I also think that if Schmidt’s defence coach thinks there’s an issue with Payne at 13, then Schmidt might share the same concerns. Or, not, as the case may be. In any case I don’t see any problems here really.

    • curates_egg

       /  September 11, 2014

      Ruddock will be a first choice at Leinster this year (and possibly Ireland in November), swapsies will have to be for someone else. We need a centre though.

      • Peat

         /  September 11, 2014

        Some people think Payne will possibly be Ireland’s first choice 13, which would make him de facto Ulster’s first choice 13, whether fans agree with that or not. That seems a fairly equal status and therefore a fair swap. We’re not going to swap him for the likes of Kevin McLaughlin, that’d be pretty silly. I can see why Leinster fans wouldn’t like the exchange though.

        And this in a nutshell is why it’s not happening. Would have done the original proposed swap for McGrath, but he didn’t want to go. There’ll always be someone objecting to some detail, usually with fair reason.

        • Wouldn’t Jordi Murphy make more sense to do a swap? Seriously talented player but with the strength in depth Leinster have, he’s going to be Jack of all trades, master of none again this season. Beefing up the Ulster backrow to European standard at 8 (and backup at 7) would be a great solution – if Leinster were to get a centre in return?

          Bam Bam or Olding fancy a few nights out around the RDS maybe? 😛

          • Peat

             /  September 11, 2014

            Jordi would have been a fairly interesting idea before he crocked himself, yeah. Spend a few seasons odd-jobbing around the back-row while he turned into the next Henry. But for Bam Bam or Olding… ye big spoofer… how about McCloskey for Furlong huh?

          • Now now, chaps, they’re not peices of meat to be passed around the provinces. That said, we’d have Jared Payne down at Leinster in jig time! His star seems to have faded a little of late, but he remains a class act.

  6. ruckinhell

     /  September 11, 2014

    I’m sure Munster would gladly take McCloskey off Ulster’s hands, in return perhaps for a Dave O’Callaghan who would add to Ulster’s BR options. Isn’t this the sort of thing that Nucifora is supposed to be arranging? Both are players who have great potential but barring massive injuries won’t get a sniff of a regular game.

    Ulster’s centre stocks ar really very impressive!

  7. Stephen

     /  September 11, 2014

    “Yeah – the Southern press seem to have him inked at 13 – that is presumably driven by Schmidt. You’d think so alright.”

    Fellas, not looking any details etc, but – have you heard anything, hard or soft, from any reputable source, that Schmidt thinks Payne is a prospect for the 13 jersey at Test level? Honestly asking.

    Let’s take stock of Payne at 13. He has played in a handful of home, non-interpro Pro12 games last season (ie, games we should be presuming Ulster will comfortably win), and was ordinary. One decent try against Zebre – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UYI2edOsg0. However, for all the big games he was slotted in at 15. When Payne was eventually played at 13 in a big game (away to Leinster in the P12 semi-final) he was essentially anonymous, and missed a tackle on the winning try – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0nqUUnnATs.

    Overall, Ulster fans agree that to date Payne has been utterly cack at 13 against decent opposition. Now Schmidt is quite possibly the best coach the Irish national team has ever had: surely he sees this?

    • I’m fairly certain Schmidt said so himself. But we’d agree – we think he’d be a bit of a defensive liability there.

  8. Andrew097

     /  September 11, 2014

    Ulster looked pretty tidy at Tallaght recently hadAndrew097 a lot of hall marks of a Schmidt team. A lot of the same KPIs almost as if Ulsters coach had being watching Schmidt at close quarters. I think Ulster will do really well.

  9. toro toro

     /  September 11, 2014

    Warwick looked good against Leinster there in Tallaght (I know, I know) but Herbst was seriously impressive and put Healy in a lot of trouble. I was talking to Greg Feek extremely briefly after, who rates him very highly and certainly didn’t need to be reminded he was a project player.

    • Stephen

       /  September 12, 2014

      Medium to long term, Herbst in Afoa out will be a massive net gain for Ulster and Ireland.

      • A liitle premature, Stephen? I know Afoa was plainly distracted in his last term, but he wa a world cup winning Kiwi and brilliant in his first campaign. Let’s see this Herbt fellow against a few good front rows in competitive matches before rushing to judgement.

      • Hopefully – and he made an encouraging start

        • Mary Hinge

           /  September 12, 2014

          Eagerly awaiting the feature on Connacht WOC. Can we expect to see it later today? Only outfit to win on the first weekend. Preferred provincial destination of Mils Muliaina and Bundee Aki etc etc….

          • Here here, after three consecutive articles largely summarising analysis seen elsewhere in the media on the 3 ‘main’ provinces, I was looking forward to some insight on the western province. Have WoC done an Ulster and changed their coaching ticket for this season?

          • It’s coming, people. Tomorrow!

  10. NitPicker

     /  September 16, 2014

    Sorry to nitpick here, fellas, but DHumph did not study Law at Oxford. After graduating in Law from Queen’s, he got a Diploma in Social Studies which was a token sportsman’s course (designed for rowers?) that allowed him to concentrate on trying to win the Varsity Match back when it still mattered a little. Of course he very nearly did win it single-handedly only for Cambridge to nick it at the death. From there he went to London Irish under Clive Woodward and played with Conor O’Shea, Malcolm O’Kelly, Rob Henderson, Niall Woods, Jeremy Davidson, Gary Halpin, Gabriel Fulcher, Kieron Dawson etc.

    • Excellent work – this is the kind of pedantry we whole-heartedly endorse.

      Thanks!

      PS interesting point on when the Varsity match mattered. Barnesy got a Wales call-up on the back of a good Varsity match (he turned it down)

    • Thanks NitPicker – a worthwhile NitPick for sure.

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