What’s the hell is going on at… Ulster

Concern is growing for Ulster after another meek defeat in the AAA-Bank12.  A feeble 17-9 defeat left them empty handed from their trip to Glasgow, and leaves them 8th in the table, just 2 points ahead of Connacht and nine points behind the team in fourth place, which happens to be Glasgow.

It’s a worrying state of affairs for a team that finished third in what looked to be a breakthrough season last time around.  Last year’s Ulster were characterised by the number of tight victories they squeezed out, many of them won late in the day by Ruan Pienaar; this year’s model look to have lost that ability.  They are, admittedly, missing the ice-veined Suthifrikan, who is currently injured.  Another being badly missed is Jared Payne, the outstanding Kiwi signed to play full-back, who is out for the season.  Their troubles began in losing three in a row during the World Cup, amid a general sense that their much vaunted youngsters hadn’t quite grasped their opportunity, and they just haven’t got going at all yet.

The Glasgow match was the second week in a row that Ulster were in the game for the most part (the previous one being Leicester), before losing a try late in the day.  This time it was due to poor alignment and organisation, with Trimble allowing a gap for David Lemi to breeze into.  It’s also Ulster’s second week in a row without a try, and their attack is becoming an issue.  For a team with a relatively heralded backline, their attaking play has been littered with errors; poor passes, dropped ball, and little or no cutting edge in the opposition’s 22. 

Marshall is a good scrum half, albeit not in the Pienaar class, and with a tendency to box kick too often (well, he is an Irish scrum half, so what’s new?).  iHumph will never be everyone’s cup of tea, but he is at least an inventive touch player. In the absence of Paddy Wallace (recovering from a broken finger), the centre combination of Spence and Cave is full of hard running, but it’s all a bit boshtastic – they miss the subtlety that Paddy brings to their game.  Andy Trimble has plenty of gas and power outside them, but he’s spending his time trying to step through heavy traffic – someone needs to try and put him into some space.

A backline often lives and dies by the backrow in front of it – after all, you could have Ma’a Nonu and BOD in midfield, but if you can’t get them any quick ball, they would look ordinary.  Casting a glance over Ulster’s loose trio, it does look as if this is where their problems lie.  Ferris is outstanding, but all of Diack, Wannenberg, Henry or Falloon are in the ‘decent but not great’ category.  More often than not, the Ulster backrow looks imbalanced, with three contact-magnets trying to bosh their way through midfield.  They look better when Faloon, a good link man, plays well, but he needs to start performing with a bit more consistency.

The Heineken knock-outs look a step beyond Ulster this year (it probably requires them to beat Leicester 4-0 at home and get something from the trip to Clermont), and the Magners League playoffs look a long way off at the moment.  Ospreys are showing no sign of letting up, Leinster and Munster will surely stay in the top four, Glasgow are going well and Scarlets look to be up and running with all their internationals back.  It has all the hallmarks of being a(nother) disappointing season up north.

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Team in focus: Ulster

Last season: A. Ulster had a fantastic season, their best since Humph retired – some shrewd Saffa recruitment and up-and-coming young talent led Ulster through their HEC pool, and, with a little more belief, the Saints were there for the taking. Third place in the ML secured a playoff, but an(other) inevitable defeat to Leinster ensued it ended potless in Ravenhill.

So far this year: If last year was A, this season has been C- so far. They didn’t have many players in NZ, but the ones they did have were crucial – the spine of the team (2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 14 including captain, vice-captain and on-field lieutenants) were gone. The forwards have been too lightweight to get ball for the talented backs and old faultlines have re-appeared – e.g. iHumph’s salloon door tackling.

Prospects: The shocking HEC draw has concentrated minds in Ravenhill – there is no room for error, and they must hit the ground running and beat the in-form and intimidating Clermont Auvergne next week followed by a tilt at the Tigers the week after.

The pressure seems to be telling a little and Ulster are struggling to get motoring. The hope was that the younger players would put some pressure on the established names, and that the RWC returnees would be coming back into a fight for the shirt. That hasn’t happened, and the string of losses is worrying.

On the personnel front, the question marks are mainly around whether the players who did well last year can step up. Paddy McAlister looks a real prospect at loose-head – he’s physical and aggressive and certainly looks more effective than Tom Court. If McLaughlin throws him in against the (very) big guns of Clermont and Leicester, it will be very interesting. Opposite him, John Afoa on the tight-head side can’t come in soon enough – Court’s scrummaging has always been passable at best, and it is frankly abominable on the tight side. Rory Best isn’t being shifted, but young Niall Annett has captained every age group he has played in, and will be given a taste of Rabo action this year – one to watch in 2015.

Further back, Ulster will want big seasons from Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry. Tuohy is a great ball carrier and when on form, seems to have all the tools to be an international player. The problem is that, particularly this season, his form has been up and down. The return of Muller alongside him (and Best) should help him concentrate on his own game.

The Ulster back-row is in a bit of flux. You want your back-row to be well-balanced and to have a tackler, a carrier and a line-out merchant. Fez is all 3 really, Pedrie Wannenburg is a carrier and Chris Henry is, well … nothing, really. For Henry to continue his progression, he needs to make a shirt and a role his own. He is probably best-suited to 6, but the imposing frame of Fez is blocking him in the big games (assuming he is fit). At 8, he is behind agricultural Bok bosher Wannenburg, who might be fairly one-dimensional, but he gets across the gainline and has a happy knack of picking up tries. Which leaves 7, where Willie Falloon is a much better, albeit inconsistent, fit. Henry is in danger of being left behind, but he has potential and is a good leader – it’s a huge season for him. The afore-mentioned Falloon is a classic openside and Ulster look much better balanced with him in the side. He is a younger man and has yet to produce consistently, but if he gets form and starts, he balances the team much better. Which leaves Henry on the bench…

Pienaar and iHumph offer Ulster a balanced and exciting halfback pairing. The idea of a play-making scummie is still a bit odd here, and it gives Ulster the ability to play it either way. Pienaar’s game management and kicking is top class, and it allows the luxury of Humphreys silky skills and woollen defence at 10. Paul Marshall on the bench offers snappy service and a fast break as the game opens up. Also, look out for a fascinating battle between Paddy Jackson and James McKinney for the Young Outhalf Prospect Cup. At centre, the current incumbents are Nevin Spence and Paddy Wallace, with Luke Marshall and Darren Cave backing up. The competition should bring the best out of them all, and probably usher in Paddy Wallace’s swansong. In Cordite Villlas, we hope to see Spence in a green shirt very soon.

Out wide, it seems strange that its less than 2 years since Timmy Naguca, Mark McCrea and Clinton Shifcofske were trundling around Mount Merrion wasting good ball. Trimble and Danielli are genuinely HEC class, and youngsters Craig Gilroy and Conor Gaston will hope for lots of gametime. Adam D’Arcy is a fantastic broken field runner, but it’s all a bit pointless given he can’t actually pass the ball. Ageing Saffa boot merchant Stefan Terblanche has been brought in to cover for the unfortunate Jared Payne, and will actually contribute – Ulster do not have a safe as houses full-back a la Bob Kearney in the squad.

Ulster got an absolute stinker of a HEC draw this year – just when they needed something benign (e.g. Biarritz) to establish themselves as a quarter-final side, out popped the worst conceivable pool – Leicester and Clermont. To be fair, neither of those two would have been happy to see Ulster – Leicester have had some very bad days in Ravenhill, and Clermont, despite being among the three best sides in Europe for the last 4 years, have seen their ambitions founder on Irish soil.

Nineteen points will generally get you close to a wild card for the knock-out stages, and it’s a simple formula – 4 wins and 3 bonus points. Ulster have to let tie-breaking criteria think of themselves, and hope perhaps that Clermont do a Perpignan and get a result in Welford Road. They will aim for a double over Aironi and two other home wins. As for bonus points, the most likely scenario for getting three is two try numbers from the Italians and one losing point in Leicester – nobody gets one in the Stade Marcel Michelin (except Munster and Leinster). It’s a tall order, but Ulster played the timing of their fixtures well last year, and its an easy argument to make that now is the time to be visiting Welford Road.

At home, it’s about getting into the top 4 – only Leinster stand out in the Rabo pack, and Ulster, Munster and the bigger Welsh sides are of a similar standard. Fourth place will do, but fifth wouldn’t be a disaster if some of the younger guns get useful and productive gametime.

Verdict: Despite all the optimism Egg Chaser can muster, it’s a huge ask to get out of this pool. We think they will come mighty close though. We forecast 18 points and a finish behind Clermont. ERC tie-breakers will decide if its them or Leicester who join Munster in pursuit of the AmlinVase. At ProDirect level, they won’t get a home semi-final, but will do enough to get an away one – the lack of Irish internationals will work in their favour in February and March. Unless of course Deccie goes for revolution not evolution… Nah, playoffs it is.