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.