Stop Press: Ulster Optimism

This particular Ulster fan is feeling pretty chipper right now. That’s right – chipper! And it’s very unlike him – normally he worries about Ulster’s lack of depth in the front five, Paul Marshall being near the first XV, Jared Payne running the defensive alignment and (especially) when dishy Steve Walsh will next referee his province. Dreamboat.

But there are grounds for hope, and more than that, what with the HEC cranking into gear soon:

  1. He worried incessantly about the wisdom of replacing both props in one summer. Now, he maintains it was a risk, but he can’t argue that things aren’t looking good. On the loosehead side, Andrew Warwick looks more powerful every time he plays – he looks a real find. Maybe he’s not ready for HEC rugby, but why not? He seems able. On the tighthead side, Wiehann Herbst has been a revelation, turning Ulster’s scrum into a real platform – John Afoa has not only not been missed, but he has given Ulster fans a chance to wallow in some glorious schadenfreude at his travails at Glaws
  2. Let’s not talk about the second row, bar saying Alan O’Connor played well on his debut and Franco van der Werve better not get injured in the next three weeks
  3. Ruan Pienaar has arrived back at Ravers! Ulster simply must get him on the pitch next weekend, or they are goosed
  4. Stuart Olding has picked up where he left off 15 months ago and looks in spectacularly good nick – Ulster missed a bit of guile in the opposition 22 under Cowboy, and they look to have added clinicality – Olding is a big part of that

But, more, much more than that, its the horrendous start to the season endured by the Leicester Tigers that has this Ulster fan feeling so chipper – the HEC (for that is what it is) starts in nine days, and it starts in Leicester. If ever there was a time to play the Tigers its now, and Ulster already have experience of playing there – and winning.

Those of us who love rugby, and love ye olde school English clubs, love the Leicester Tigers, but unfortunately for them, everyone is injured.  The pack is missing several most of their best forwards, including the Toms Young and Croft and the unfortunate Dan Cole.  That leaves them with a pack anchored by the same Italians that have been tearing up the Six Nati … wait, that’s wrong … and Big Bad Brad Thorn, who finally seems done. Leicester are renowned for tough uncompromising forward play, but it’s just not as frightening when your pack enforcers are .. er .. Graham Kitchener and Julian Salvi. And giving this team direction from 10 is Freddie Burns, who is now a fully paid-up member of the English out-halves who looked decent for three months then collapsed in a pile of dung club, which is chaired by Ryan Lamb and Shane Geraghty.  Way to let the next England fly-half go off to Ooooooooohh Bath, goys! Also missing is Ooooooooooooooooooooohhh Manu Tuilagi – the anchor of their backline.

They lie just above the Boshiership relegation zone and their form is dismal. Here are their results this season:

  • Leicester 36-17 Newcastle
  • Exeter 20-24 Leicester
  • Bath 45-0 (NIL) Leicester (Videprinter moment)
  • Leicester 19-22 London Oirish
  • Gloucester 33-16 Leicester

Sure, Ulster might have lost to the Zebras, but they made 10 changes for that game, had a guy sent off and still probably should have won. And they weren’t at home. To London Oirish. Make no mistake, this is a winnable game. Eminently winnable. Its literally the best possible time to play in Welford Road.

After that, it’s the big one, double champions Toulon – this is a toughie, especially with injuries in the second row – Bakkies and Ali Williams don’t cost megabucks for nothing. Still though – Ulster are at home, and Ravers is a bit of a fortress these days, and a sizzling atmosphere a la Saracens last year is guaranteed. Not that that will phase Toulon of course – despite what Gerry might think, there is little the Irish can teach the French about culture, passion or roaring hot rugby grounds. Toulon’s away form has improved this year (3 wins from 4), but they lost their opening HEC away game last year – to Cardiff, of all teams!  Toulon might travel with the sense that a losing bonus point is a decent outcome.

It is unlikely to be a classic, but Ulster are a tough nut to crack in Ravers, and it will be tight. If Ulster can eke out two wins, that would be eight points on the board with a double header with the Scarlets to come – and with three from five runners-up qualifying, they will have got themselves into an excellent position. Ulster have qualified from tougher pools – notably 2011/12 with Clermont and Leicester when Clermont were at or around the peak of their powers (and Leicester, again, succumbed to an injury crisis) and Ulster are much improved since then. They went 6-for-6 last year, winning in Montpellier and Leicester, and have enough about them to justify some faith – we’re tipping them to win both and take a giant leap to the knockout stages of the inaugural HEC.  How’s that for glass-half-full Nordie Optimism?!

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  1. Mike

     /  October 9, 2014

    Whiff… you should know better.

    Going into a big Euro game (especially an away game in England) as favourites with an air of confidence does us no favours… Can we have an article on the silky passing of Ben Youngs, the power of Goneva, the running lines of Matthew Tait and the speed of oooooh Tom Croft.

    • I can’t wait to see Pienaar (or even better, wee P-Marsh) charge down a Ben Youngs box kick at the height of his arm-flapping frustration, a crunching ooooooh bosh on Goneva being shepherded into midfield, a Trimble try off the back of a Tait fumble under pressure, and Paddy Wallace coming out of the stands to bully Tom Croft into touch.

  2. My biggest concern coming into this season was undoubtably the scrum, and we’re in pretty great knick, considering the condition of the other two main Irish packs currently (Munster’s hookers crocking themselves at every opportunity, Leinster’s front row suddenly having the composition of a cheap vase), whilst Connacht are probably in the best condition of the four.

    Second row is still a worry, you’re right that Big Frank is really going to have to earn his crust over the next few months. Considering that the Ronnie Raaymakers’ move is in doubt after he injured himself, we’re looking at another stint of Diack in the engine room. That presents the other issue that we still don’t really have definitive depth in the back row (and our one chance at having a look at it so far this season has been ruined by Fitzpatrick’s right hook).

    Another worry is that wee PJ doesn’t make it to Welford Road, and we have iHumph and Burns running at each other missing tackles. You’d think if that were the case, Cave would have to come in to shore up the defenses with (whisper it) Payne on the bench?

    Other than that though, we’re in a pretty great place. The backs seem to be thriving in the competition they’ve made for themselves and we have a little bit of depth across the line, (with Olding subbing in for PJ was a nice sight especially!)

    I think the news on the coaching ticket is a big plus as well. Doak obviously comes in on a lot of goodwill, and I think Kiss coming in after the World Cup is probably the best of both worlds for Ulster and Ireland. The man’s practically indigenous, and while he’s been a great servant for the national team, it makes sense to have his continuity up to “the big one” and then look to bring a fresh set of eyes in for defense. It’ll be interesting to see how much Les’ double-jobbing will influence Joe’s selection in the backs too, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a full Ulster backline outside Marmion for Samoa, with a decent amount of representation against the Aussies.

    • I’d be very surprised to see a full Ulster backline outside Marmion against Samoa this November. Very surprised indeed.

      • Mary Hinge

         /  October 10, 2014

        And so would I Thoughtless, unless Marmion and the entire Ulster backline have declared for Italy!

        • Fetcher

           /  October 10, 2014

          McCloskey has surely outstripped D’Arcy, Marshall, Olding and McSharry at this rate. The two of ye are living in the past.

          • I think they were pointing out me being an eejit and saying Ireland were due to play Samoa this year, when in fact they’re playing Georgia 🙂

  3. cp

     /  October 9, 2014

    Hate to have to be the one to tell you this, but Tuilagi is starting for Leicester this weekend. Suppose that’s what happens when a Nordie gets optimistic..

    Having said that, I still give Ulster a good chance in Welford Road.

  4. “…inaugural HEC”? That wasn’t a typo, was it? 🙂

  5. Cian

     /  October 9, 2014

    Any thoughts from Ulster fans on Payne to 13, based on this season so far? I haven’t managed to see an Ulster match, but have heard that he continues to be just as underwhelming there as he was last year (especially compared to his exploits at full back). On the other hand, some folks seem absolutely convinced that he’ll be wearing 13 for Ireland, more because of the effort that’s been put into getting him over here and eligible than anything else.

    On another note, it’s great to see a wealth of promising young Irish players coming through, especially as Leinster seem to be going through a dry spell and Munster’s production line is still slow and steady.

    • Mike

       /  October 9, 2014

      I’m not convinced at all. Doesn’t have the pace or the defensive skills. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t really see a future there for him and with Ludik going really well at 15 i fear for him. If we were to just pick our best 15, free of outside influences, he would be in danger of not getting into the team at all.

    • Don Alfonso

       /  October 9, 2014

      rOur backline attack looks a class apart when Jared Payne is at 15, popping up and shifting the point of attack.

      He is not good at 13. Really. Cave – who the whispers say has booked a ticket to France – is much better. But there is no obvious successor to BOD, and there is panic. It smacks of futile desperation to imagine that Payne will suddenly come good there, certainly enough to play there internationally, The idea that Cave hasn’t really grabbed his international chances at 13, and should be abandoned, but Payne, who hasn’t grabbed his chances at Pro12 level against the likes of an appalling Edinburgh should be persevered with, seems steeped in wishful thinking.

      Playing Payne at 13 at the behest of Joe is holding this Ulster team back. Maybe it won’t actually be abandoned until Jared puts in a poor performance in the AIs. And then he could go back to being an elusive, classy act at 15.

      Remember Deccie requiring Paddy Wallace to play ten for Ulster against Connacht. We scarped a draw, and Paddy, an excellent provincial inside centre, came no closer to becoming international class flyhalf cover. Never worry – I’m sure this will be more successful. Definitely.

    • Stephen

       /  October 9, 2014

      The best things that can happen, for Ireland and Ulster, is for Payne to start at 13 against South Africa and plays an absolute stinker, ideally conceding a try or two.

      He is utterly shit at 13. Others will know I normally write more considered posts than this, but essentially – Payne is shit at 13.

      • Don Alfonso

         /  October 9, 2014

        What Stephen said.

      • Cian

         /  October 9, 2014

        Interesting! I find it hard to believe Schmidt could be so far off base with this notion, but that appears to be the case. Particularly bemusing considering that Ireland aren’t exactly stacked at 15 either. After Bob, there’s a bit of a gap, and it would be nice to have two top class full backs available.

      • Surely if the MBK has watched any Ulster games this season he’ll not pick Payne at 13.

        • Stephen

           /  October 13, 2014

          It could be a case of Schmidt wanting Payne to cover 13 and 15 behind (say) Henshaw/Cave and Kearney.

          Although if he wanted such cover, surely he would just pick Henshaw, who is a better 13 if not quite as good a full-back . . .

          • Peat

             /  October 13, 2014

            Think there’s at least a grain of truth there. If Payne only covers 15, then surely it’s only him or Kearney off to the World Cup. So either Payne covers two positions, or he unseats Kearney – or he doesn’t go.

  6. Lop12

     /  October 9, 2014

    Great chance for Ulster over there. One point though, Brad T has only played once this season. I wouldnt be writing the old dog off yet!

  7. SportingBench

     /  October 9, 2014

    Hmmm,it might just be history but I always fear for an optimistic Ulster and have fear of a wounded TIger…

  8. Amiga500

     /  October 9, 2014

    I dunno what games you folks are watching, but our backplay is turgid shite, our backrow unable to punch through wet paper bags and our half backs controlling nothing. The front 5 are keeping us alive so far.

    Glasgow are going to thump us on Sat evening… but still, won’t stop me heading to the terrace with several pints in situ for moping! 😉

    • Ná bí mar sin, Amiga500! Down Leinster way we’re counting on our Northern buddies to deprive them Glaswegian pretenders of valuable points!!!

    • Amiga500

       /  October 13, 2014

      Mea culpa!

      I did not see that coming. Much more control from weeP and iHumph put us in the right places and good defense snuffed out Glasgow.

      I still wouldn’t say we overly stretched the Glasgow defence either, but a good Gilroy run against the grain was enough to put the onus on the warriors to take risks, which came unglued.

  9. I don’t know if this is good news or bad news but the Leicester v Ulster game is on BT Sport so there won’t be an “Ooooooooooooooooooooohhh …” for anyone.

    Still, Sky are covering Ulster v Glasgow this weekend so “Ooooooooooooooooooooohhh …McCloskey…” may expand Barnesy’s vocabulary.

    • SportingBench

       /  October 9, 2014

      Booo on both counts but particularly the Glasgow game on Sky. Hadn’t bothered to check so had assumed that was my Friday night sorted.

  10. Amiga500

     /  October 9, 2014

    Surely we can add “I can’t believe its not the Heineken Cup” to the Dexycon… erm, Lexicon.

  11. paddyo

     /  October 9, 2014

    It looks like pretty good personnel on paper and last year ulster were arguably in the top 3 in Europe. They have handled clermont before and I would have loved to see them getting the crack at Toulon which they will get this year.

    At the minute they need to

    1.sort out discipline a bit. Rightly or wrongly (dec fitz was in the right but hit the wrong man) there seems to be too many cards and needless penalties and it’s undermining their efforts.

    2. Figure out their preferred 23. In previous years it’s been more or less obvious, but the back line right now seems to have an infinite number of possible combos. Many of them similarly skilled players. McCloskey at 12 seems to be the only man who only plays one position – and he is unlikely to start. Ok maybe paddy Jackson too, but pienaar will often step out to 10. You do feel like its a bit of a moving season for a few of these backs to push on their rwc credentials, but if all are fully fit not all will be in the squad. All the backs being fully fit is perhaps an unlikely problem though to be fair.

    • D6W

       /  October 10, 2014

      I saw McCloskey play against Embra last week and I thought he was outstanding. I’m surprised he is not a starter at 12. Or was that simply a purple patch against weak opposition?

      • paddyo

         /  October 10, 2014

        Oh he was and is good, but that’s what I mean – in my head olding would be the likely 12, but that’s merely an opinion-with Jackson still recuperating might they play him 10? Or decide to try him 13? Or as they’ve done for the weekend as an impact sub who covers multiple positions?

        13 remains very up for grabs and until that decision is made so does 15. McCloskey being a one position man might be to his advantage. It really is a good back division on paper. Therein lies the reason for optimism and pessimism.

  12. In true Ulster fashion, I worry that we are two strains away from a McComb/Stevenson engine room which makes a geriatric Brad Thorn/Kitchener pairing look pretty tasty.

    • paddyo

       /  October 10, 2014

      What if marge, what if? What if I slipped on a bar of soap?……. Oh my god I’d be killed!

      Aye it’s time for fvdm to get wrapped in cotton wool alright. On the other hand I think Kitchener is injured too, so it will be thorn and……? Yeah it’s a fair point that playing Leicester and Toulon it possibly isn’t tweaks in the back line that should be concerning. Huge test for newish front row and 2nd row partnerships.

  13. Stephen

     /  October 10, 2014

    Your glass should be fully fecking empty now, boyo.

    Olding, our best 12, on the bench covering 10.
    Cave, our best 13, polishing up his French whilst watching Jared leak line breaks. “Zeut alors! Il a la défense d’une porte de grange!”

  14. Peat

     /  October 11, 2014

    Well, if the glass was empty when the team sheet was announced, someone just got a round in after that game.

    I sat through Leicester-Harlequins and, if there is such a thing as purgatory, I’ve gone through 80 minutes of it already. Granted, we’ve just seen how a top team can go from nought to 60 in a week, but it is difficult to understand how sloppy Leicester look at the moment – and that was against a side committing suicide. He’ll never get a look in for England but Anthony Allen is the first name I’d be looking for on the Tigers team sheet, he has been the glue that holds their backline together. If he’s still missing, and with 5 members of their first choice pack out, it’s as nice a chance as you can hope for. Really got to wonder how they come up with such atrocious injury counts season after season.

    • Stephen

       /  October 13, 2014

      Pleasantly surprised by the result. A pack-won game, which should be an excellent prep for taking on Tiggers at their mini-pitch at Welford Road.

      Bludgeon them for 50-0 minutes, release the backs, and smile . . .

      Payne useless, though.

  15. And O’Connor gets banned for 3 weeks. Up you come Lewis & Neil, meet Brad, Bakkies and Ali.

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