Ulster Struggles

So there ya go – the dream is over. With Ulster’s development in recent years, Ireland have had three names supping at the top table of European rugby – we felt that the provinces were in a good position to replicate last season (and 2012)’s success and have three in the last eight. But, for the first time since 2010, Ulster won’t be there. We haven’t bothered crunching the stats – we’ll leave that to real numbers gurus like Andy McGeady – but we suspect there haven’t been many teams who have made the knockouts after losing their opening two games. After nicking a late bonus point in Welford Road, Ulster couldn’t even repeat that trick at home to Toulon and are now marooned with a single point. Bummer.

Now, losing to Toulon is far from disgraceful – they are European and French champions and produced the first powerhouse performance of the tournament on Saturday, whacking and bagging Ulster by half-time. Losing to this Leicester vintage isn’t so great though, and four wins with a couple of bonus points from here looks an extremely tall order, especially since one of those games is in Toulon.

In a sense, there have been some chickens coming home to roost for Ulster – organisational upheavel this summer, a lack of depth in the pack being exposed by injuries, and curious selection.

When Humph announced he was leaving for Glaws, Ulster rugger went into a state of shock, and it has taken four months for the endgame to play out. First of all, Cowboy was given the heave-ho with Les “Kissy” Kiss coming in on an interim job-share basis to bring his choke tackling expertise, hipster specs and sunny, thoughtful demeanour to Ravers – this was initally announced as a season-long measure. But then the announcement came that Kissy was going back to Carton House full-time and Ulster would shortly name a full-time coach. To no-ones surprise, a few weeks later, that was Neil Doak – with Kissy returning after RWC15 as Nucifor-stamped DoR. All of which ends well for Ulster, but it does mean that the Ulster players have had three head coaches for the 2014/15 season in 3 months – hardly the best preparation for European rugby.

And, although Doak has been around Ravers since, like, forever and has presumably – like the perennial bridesmaid – been preparing to be head coach for half that time, he only got the keys three weeks ago. Now, there can be no doubt he had input into team selection and tactics, so he wasn’t completely green, but having your second and third games as head coach against Leicester and Toulon is far from ideal. From Ulster’s perspective, the succession hasn’t been smooth – the best-managed corporates have a succession plan for everybody that they can put in place when required – Ulster might have got the outcome they wanted, but it took them a while to get there, and preparation undoubedly suffered. Perhaps there was a reason Doak couldn’t have taken over when Cowboy was slung out, with Kiss being lined up as 2015 DoR in time, but we can’t think of a persuasive one. Either way, Ulster have been in a state of organisational flux since June.

Secondly, the team was decimated by injury – or was it? The reality is that they are missing both starting locks  – Dan Tuohy, NWJMB – Ruan Pienaar and Andy Trimble. Pienaar and Trimble are virtually irreplacable but its the pack which has been hardest hit. Note: Alan O’Connor is also suspended, but if you are depending on an Academy player with two starts to rescue you against Toulon, you are in trouble. The reality of the situation is that Ulster’s depth in the pack was a concern 12 month ago and its got markedly worse since:

  • OUT: Tom Court (Prop, 32 caps for Ireland), John Afoa (Prop, 36 caps for BNZ, RWC11 winner), Johann Muller (Lock, 24 caps for SA, RWC07 winner), Fez (Flanker, 35 caps for Ireland, 2009 Lion) plus Niall Annett (Hooker), Adam Macklin (Prop), Paddy McAlister (Prop), Sean Doyle (Flanker)
  • IN: Wiehann Herbst (Prop), Ruadhri Murphy (Prop), Dave Ryan (Prop), Franco van der Merwe (Lock, 1 cap for SA), Charlie Butterworth (Flanker), Sean Reidy (Flanker)

Essentially, Ulster have lost their captain, 2 RWC winners, Ireland’s only player of the professional era aside from POC and BOD to be challenging for a World XV and 127 international caps and replaced them with a couple of wild card props and a once-capped Springbok journeyman. Poor planning, and ordinary recruitment. That’s going to hurt when you come up against a side who can lose Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe after five minutes and replace him with a MOTM contender from last year’s final. Ulster were so stretched, they had to rely on Clive Ross and Nick Williams as crack game-changers from the bench.

That’s a big enough handicap as is, but to find yourself struggling to identify your starting centres is pretty careless. Jared Payne has been the chosen one at outside centre for Ulster (and maybe for Ireland) but it’s fair to say he hasn’t got going there – when Ulster have brought Dazzler Cave into the team and moved Payne back to full-back, they’ve looked immeasurably more dangerous. Against the Tigers, Ulster went for brawn inside in the shape of Stuart McCloskey, but began to create opportunities only when he was replaced with the rapier that is Stu Olding. The against Toulon, it was Olding who started, but even before he got kicked in the head in a scene reminiscent of the Thing That Never Happened, he was being run ragged by Maxime Mermoz (aside: is this a first for anyone else to see Mermoz actually playing well? He has always seemed disappointing any time we have seen him) and Mathieu Boshtereaud.

Which isn’t to say Toulon steamrollered over Ulster – it was the technical brilliance of their pack and centres that won them this game – subtlety was the name of the game in the key moments. That awful feeling of being outclassed came a week after a litany of errors handed a free win to a Leicester Tigers team that subsequently gave the Scarlets (the Scarlets!) an easy win. Ulster have hid it pretty well in the Pro12 to date, but a pair of limp defeats in the rarefied air of the HEC/ERCC has shown them up for being a bit of a mess right now. If Doak didn’t know he had a big job on his hands, he does now.


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.

Sayonara Anscombe

Well, that was a surprise wasn’t it? Deep in the midst of the Northern Hemisphere rugger silly season, where we had been trying to feign interest in Ooooooooooooooohh James Downey’s move to Glasgae, Ulster only went and sacked Anscombe! Yesterday was Anscombe’s first day back at the office, supervising training for the non-touring Ulstermen – basically Neil McComb and Mike McComish, who we assume were practicing thirty-metre passes – when he got the curly finger and was dispatched summarily. He had known nothing in advance.

Coming hot on the heels of Humph’s departure to Glaws, it seems obvious the events are related. But how?

  • Ulster’s bicameral coaching structure, whereby the DoR, Humph, was responsible for only off-pitch matters with the head coach, Anscombe, taking training and picking the team, was effectively built around Humphreys and his departure meant what felt like a strong and suitable management structure now became pointless. Better to bite the bullet now than have a lame duck for a year
  • A willing pawn no longer had his protector and was chopped at the first available opportunity. Humph’s Machiavellian control structures were no longer needed and have been swept away.

Ulster have moved to combine the roles and recruit a big beast accordingly – Les Kiss comes in on an interim basis with his funky specs and choke tackles and will “assist” Neil Doak and Jonny Bell in coaching and picking the side. Kissy has been Ireland’s defence coach since Deccie came in, building a strong system, and has lots of respect in the game. He also had a rather underwhelming spell as shunting-the-ball-from-side-to-side attack coach for a while – but the less said about that the better. He hasn’t had a head coaching role before and it’s clearly a temporary, if interesting, solution imposed from D4. One wonders if this bears the fingerprints of Nucifora.

Unlike Humph (and McLaughlin), Anscombe will be unlamented by Ulster fans. The view was Humph had replaced one not-great coach with another, and that Anscombe was a yes-man who was out of his depth and who struggled with bench usage in key games, repeatedly falling short. While Ulster progressed in his time, they never added enough to their game to win a trophy, and their strike rate in opposition 22 has become increasingly woeful.  They just kept falling short in the same manner in a number of big games.

Ulster have felt well-run in recent years but the nature of recent changes has been rather slapdash (like indeed the infamous Humph-McLaughlin presser when Humph toe-curlingly insisted he wasn’t firing his coach) – the Ulster players in Argentina heard about Humph’s departure by text from Fez, and Rory Best has described the situation as “concerning”. Peter O’Reilly summed it up better, calling it a “shambles”.

So where to from here? The press have dusted off their over-optimistic requests from days of yore and have pinpointed Dingo Deans and Wayne Smith as Ulster’s preferred men – anyone who has been tracking recent provincial spend, or remembers the underwhelming feeling when Penney and Anscombe were appointed will perhaps expect something more left-field.

The key men in the appointment will not be Logan and Humph like last time, but Nucifora and Schmidt – the process followed and team appointed will be part of a broader Irish rugby-based vision than the narrow provincial focus of before, and late fifties Southern Hemisphere rent-a-coaches might not fit that template. Jeremy Davidson might, or Birch, or Mark McCall, or even Conor O’Shea or Geordan Murphy if they could be tempted home. Despite the promptings from Munsterfans.com, Michael Bradley and Eddie are unlikely to be in the mix.

Ulster’s appointment will be the first in the new ERCC world where Irish provinces will need to compete based on strong sustainable coaching structures and domestic talent – how it proceeds and who drives the bus will be very interesting.

Joe Schmidt – the Statistics

“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

Bullshit – that line came from a politician for whom facts could be inconvenient. Whilst the rugby public are just beginning to recognise how individual statistics can drive team success in this post-Moneyball era, they generally cherry-pick numbers to back up a previously-held position. [Aside: go see Andy McGeady if you think statistics are irrelevances of interest to out-of-touch boffins only.]

However, team statistics are harder to argue with – they tell the story about a teams success at a higher level. In the Joe Schmidt era, Leinster’s success was frankly incredible, and probably impossible to match. When you look at the raw numbers generated by the Milky Bar Kid and his goys, its kind of staggering. Here are a few choice gems from the Joe Schmidt era at Leinster:

0: Heineken Cup games lost to teams who aren’t Clermont Auvergne

2: teams who beat Leinster more than twice in Joe Schmidt’s reign, Clermont (3) and Ospreys (5)  

4:  both the number of trophies won in three years, and the number of games under Schmidt it took for George Hook to claim he had “lost the dressing room” – this was on September 24th, 2010

6: finals reached in three seasons

59: Net winning margin in HEC knockout games not involving Cardiff, average of 11.8 ppg

85.4%: success rate in Heineken Cup. 24 matches played: 20 won, 1 draw, 3 lost

90: Net winning margin in 6 HEC knockout matches (all won), average of 15 ppg

240: Number of starts made for Ireland by Leinster players during Schmidt’s reign, 48.5% of all starts  (Mun 145 Uls 100 Conn 7 Other 3)

Leinster have had a remarkably successful three seasons under Schmidt and have done so playing skillful and intelligent rugger – they have parked themselves at the top table of European rugby, and only Clermont Auvergne and Toulon have come close to their level in this time. Now Schmidty moves on to Ireland, and Matt O’Connor comes from Leicester to take the Impossible Job – if Schmidt’s methods transfer to Carton House, expect the kind of success (and attacking play) that we all think we have the players for.

Samoa, Oz and BNZ is a tough series to start, and the baying paying public will expect two wins. Its been a while since we have achieved our goal in a series (RWC11 pool stages probably), and the sky-high expectations Schmidty has created for himself mean he will probably want three. This ride could be fun, you know.

Postscript: the original plan was for Les Kiss to take the tour to the USA and Canada, but it appears Schmidty will be elbowing the inventor of the choke tackle aside after Houston and taking charge himself. Hands on.

Les Kiss Me Quick

Before the start of the Six Nations, we did a litle bit of exploring into Ireland’s coaching structure v2.0. We weren’t too impressed with the notion that divvying up attack duties between the defence, video and kicking coaches was a good idea. We described it as a patched-up coaching team, but also acknowledged how important this aspect of the team was for Ireland, and thought it would be the difference between a good and bad championship.

Additionally, Gert Smal cried off injured with a mystery eye problem (we’re unsure if it’s the same one Dave Pearson has) and Axel Foley was borrowed from Munster to take over the forwards. Of the 2009 Dream Team, only Deccie and Les Kiss remained, and yet Ireland look invigorated by the new approach.

Attack: in the committee we trust

Amazingly, a Holy Trinity of videos, tees and defence is a better attack coach than Gaffney.   It didn’t look too hot on paper, and took 120 minutes of rugby to start to come together, but Ireland’s attack is much improved.  The Randwick Loop and lateral shovelling that characterised 2010 and 2011 have been replaced by a much sleaker animal.

It’s not that complicated. Ireland have a pod of forwards in front of a bank of backs who are coming onto the ball from deep, and at pace.  What makes the whole thing work is nothing so mysterious as accurate passing.  Johnny Sexton’s distribution has been excellent, and those around him have been up to task, and not all of them have two numbers on their back.  It was Stephen Ferris who put Trimble away for his try against Scotland, and Peter O’Mahony went scrum half at one stage in the second half and spun a wristy, accurate pass out in front of Sexton who was at least 15m away.  Some skillset.

Defence: something had to give

Yes, we have conceded more tries, but have much of that is down to the absence of “himself ” (Copyright Gerry Thornley) and how much to the defence coach double jobbing? We’ll never know, but JJV Davies second try would surely not have happened with Drico at 13 (and with two good shoulders).

It’s somewhat inevitible that defence would suffer a little with Kiss that little bit stretched.  Hopefully he will have enough time in his busy schedule to give the otherwise outstanding Rob Kearney a few lessons in cover tackling.

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Forwards: Axel’s stock on the rise
Naturally, it’s hard to know exactly how much to credit Foley with, but it’s pretty plain that Ireland’s set piece and breakdown work have improved noticeably from the opening game against Wales.
We were legitimately concerned about Ireland’s lineout going into the Scotland game, and according to Keith Wood, Donnacha Ryan was very nervous early in the week over the added burden of lineout calling.  That the set piece worked so well is a feather in the cap for Axel (as well as credit to Ryan himself).  Similarly, Ireland’s scrum was dominant for much of the match.  Scotland are no heavyweight scrummagers, but it continued a decent campaign for the front row.  L’icing sur la cake was the tidy set-piece try from Best – precisely the sort of set piece move that brings a smile to the coach’s face when executed so efficiently (though Muddy Wulliams says it’s an old Ulster trick).
Among the many ills of the Welsh game was a lack of aggression at the ruck.  This, too, has been successfully banished in the last three games, with the most visible improvement being in Paris, when Ireland looked almost feral at the breakdown – a little too feral for Dave Pearson’s liking perhaps, but still.
It all augurs well for Foley himself.  Nobody’s actually sure whether or not Smal is returning to the fold, and it’s pretty obvious the IRFU see Foley performing this role at some stage in the future.  His credentials as head coach of Munster next season have been given a timely shot in the arm.

On to Twickers…

All in all then, a pretty good report card. Ireland look to be going places for the first time in three years. The performance graph is positive, with each performance being better than the last for four games in a row now (starting from a low base, admittedly); in stark contrast to the long swathes of dire-ness followed by one stand-out performance.

What we would like to see in Twickers is simple: the same aggressive up-and-in defence that will force England’s boshers into contact (not that they would look for space anyway), but crucially, lets Ireland dictate the first tackle. England’s carriers run pretty straight (Oooooooooooohhh!) and Farrell’s primary option seems to be the inside pass – it should be pretty readable stuff.  If Ireland can repeat the ferocity of our rucking against France, they have a good chance. We have piles more invention in attack than England, but, as always, need to match them up front to earn the right to show it.

There’s a lot at stake in Twickenham.  If Ireland pull off a win, it’s a decent championship and a proper upward curve heading into the series in New Zealand. But lose and it’s Ireland’s worst campaign since the one where Eddie walked – seems harsh to say it, but losing to Wales has left us in that position.

It will still take a monumental effort to get a win on the summer tour, especially at the end of a long, tough season. Last time we went over there, we were forced to play Ed O’Donoghue – let’s hope the big players stay fit. Oh, and if Deccie would pick our best XV for once that would be nice too.