2012/13 Season Preview: Ulster

Last Season: Ulster had their best year since 1999, reaching the Heineken Cup final on the back of epic victories over Leicester, Clermont and Munster, and a near-miss in the Marcel Michelin. The beating in the final took a little gloss off the year, but there is a satisfied glow in Belfast this summer.

League form started badly, recovered, then fell off a cliff after Thomond – the 6th place finish was probably a tad unfair on their general play, but they don’t have the depth to compete on both fronts.

In: Mark Anscombe (Auckland, coach), Tommy Bowe (Ospreys), Roger Wilson (Northampton Saints), Nick Williams (Aironi), Niall O’Connor (Connacht), Rob Herring (Stormers)

Out: Brian McLoughlin (errr … somewhere in Ravenhill that isn’t immediately clear; possibly washing linen), Ian Humphreys & Conor Gaston (London Irish), Pedrie Wannenbosh (Castres), Ian Whitten (Exeter Chiefs), Willie Faloon (Connacht), Simon Danielli & Stefan Terblanche (retired)

Last season will live long in Ulster memories – not only did they get to a HEC final, but they produced two of their best away performances of the professional era en route. Ulster were always seen as a soft touch away from Ravenhill, but their efforts in Clermont and Munster will be remembered for a long time.

On the flip side of that, Ulster started the season appallingly, and their efforts after Thomond Park were not great. The decision to change the fly-half after Humphreys poor performances in March and April did not work on the field (with respect to Paddy Jackson, he did ok, but looked too raw for the highest level), and back-fired spectacularly off it. The vision of having an experienced and competitive out-half nursing young Jackson through his formative years are in ashes after iHumph didn’t feel the love and jumped ship. It clearly still hurts (is there regret?), and must rank as a stunningly poor piece of man-management of an important player by the coaching staff.

Of course, Brian McLaughlin has moved on to be replaced by Mark Anscombe – while there is no doubt he was rather shabbily treated, we think he had taken Ulster as far as he could, and a new voice was needed. That new voice was received rather unenthusiastically after the usual Wayne Smith type speculation, and his record is less impressive than say, Rob Penney’s, but we have to assume Humph knows what he has done. As it stands, the starting 10 is likely to be Jackson, with O’Connor backing up – it’s pretty raw and shallow, and if it doesn’t work out for whatever reason, Ulster might struggle – it’s huge pressure at an early age on Jackson, let’s hope he copes with the expectation.

[Aside: this doesn’t imply Penney would have been a better man for the job – the Ulster job entails guiding a relatively young team driven by a core of grizzled leaders to European silverware, its a much more laissez-faire role than Penney’s activist re-shaping in Munster – a different personality and skillset would be needed. Penney would probably have been too hands-on for Ulster at this stage in their development.]

On the playing front, it’s been roughly a break-even summer on the transfer front. Bowe for Danielli is clearly a significant improvement, but O’Connor for iHumph is not, and while Roger Wilson for Wannebosh is not a like-for-like comparison, it’s replacing an older player with a record of good service with a younger one who understands the club mentality. Factor in that fly half and backrow are more important than wing, and perhaps Ulster didn’t do that well..

The loss through injury of Paddy McAllister is significant – not only are Ulster relying on Tom Court, but when Deccie borrows him to make half-time oranges for Cian Healy, they’ll have to play Callum Black. It’s terrible for a young promising player to miss a whole season at this stage of his development – we wish him the best. At tighthead, they have the opposite problem – Deccie will want to see a lot of Deccie Fitz and Adam Macklin, but Ulster haven’t signed John Afoa to make up the numbers. That ranks as a good problem. Expect to see Niall Annett start some Pro12 games when Rory Best is sunning himself in Maynooth – Nigel Brady and Rob Herring are also in the squad, but Annett is the future.

Second-row depth is good – Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy are one of the best starting pairs in the HEC, Lewis Stevenson developed at a rate of knots last year, and Iain Henderson is the coming lock of Irish rugby. Henderson will probably play more at 6 this season, both to get experience and to cover a thin sector, but he’ll be challenging for a starting spot within the next 2-3 years.

The second real problem area for Ulster (the first being loose-head and the third out-half) is the back-row. The starting trio of Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Roger Wilson are top class – Fez is incomparable, Henry was the stand-out openside in the Heineken Cup last season and his injury played a large part in Leinster’s ease of victory in the final, while Roger Wilson has been swimming at the top level for three years now. But behind those, it’s a steep drop-off to Mike McComish, Robbie Diack and Nick Williams – ouch! Williams was a mystifying signing – he was poor at Munster, and struggled to get his game at Aironi – why the coaching staff thought he’d be the man to backup the classy Ulster starters when silverware is the aim is unclear. The transfer of Willie Falloon to Connacht has further thinned out the back row – he hasn’t exactly been shooting the lights out, but he could be a useful Pro12 asset.

Ruan Pienaar is likely to be absent until the HEC starts due to his Boks role, so Paul Marshall will have a chance to get some momentum going again – he was brilliant when asked last year, but his opportunities were restricted at the later stages of the HEC. Its worth mentioning that Marshall-Pienaar looks an obvious solution to the outhalf issues, but Pienaar came to Ulster to prove himself a specialist 9, so he will not want to move out on a regular basis.

Ulster’s three-quarter line looks well-stocked and balanced – Paddy Wallace and Darren Cave both had their best professional seasons last year and coming kids Nevin Spence, Luke Marshall and Chris Farrell (Ooooooohh) will provide backup. Tommy Bowe has come home to contest the wing slots with Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy – Trimble is the most prosaic, but his boshes off the wing were a key setup point for Ulster attacks last season, Exhibit A being Gilroy’s try in Thomond – whoever misses out will be an improvement on the departed Ian Whitten in squad terms. Jared Payne is hoping to put an injury-hit first season behind him and, allied to the arrival of Bowe, the ouside backs look much more threatening this season – Terblanche was as safe as houses last year, but wasn’t exactly Isa Nacewa on the counter. Adam D’Arcy provides pace and broken-field expertise combined with an inability to pass off the bench.  Can Ulster develop their Saffer-inspired gameplan to cut them loose?

Ulster have a benign HEC draw this season – all three home games will be won, and the timing of the fixtures means Castres away will be targeted. We think they can pick up that and another win plus enough bonus points to win the pool and earn a home quarter-final – the first knockout HEC game at Ravers since 1999. That would represent progress. After that, its a question of the Lady Luck. If Leinster and Clermont clear one or the other out of the HEC groups, a path could open up for Ulster to go further. But that itself may depend on the fitness of the starting pack and halves – it’s hard to imagine Ulster could survive long stretches while relying on the likes of Black, Diack, Williams and O’Connor.

In the Pro12, Ulster have tended to pick up momentum in the spring due to the lack of front-line internationals in their squad – one of the results of their success and development is that the likes of Deccie Fitz, Tuohy, Henry, Cave and Gilroy may get Deccie-d, and remove the March safety valve from consideration.

Verdict: The lack of depth in key positions is our biggest problem with Ulster. The loss of iHumph has not been adequately addressed, and the backrow unit has not been improved over the summer. The three-quarter line is now stacked, but getting the ball back there in decent shape is the challenge.

The front-liners are strong enough to go far in the HEC, but a win might be beyond them. If they get a bit of fortune, another HEC final is achievable, but a home quarter final should be the target for the season. It’s hard to look beyond that; if they get it, they should have a semi-final in them, then who knows. The under-powered backrow backups are going to be a problem in the Pro12 – Ulster are likely to be without more players in February and March than in previous years, and we can’t see them making the hay like they usually do. We think they will miss out on the play-offs for the second successive season.

2012/13 Season Preview: Munster

The new season approacheth!  We’re going to start off by looking at Munster.   An infinitely fascinating season awaits.  New coach, new players and hopefully a new era for the men in red.

Last Season: on the face of it, not bad. Top of their HEC group with 6 from 6 (we think, although we haven’t heard in a while – perhaps one of our Munster friends can confirm) and 3rd in the Pro12. A gut-wrenching defeat to Ulster in the HEC quarters confirmed Munster’s slippage in the pecking order, and a frightful beating from the Ospreys finished what Toulon started last year – the end of Generation Ligind.

Unfortunately, by the standards set by GL, this was a disappointing season, especially due to the nature of the defeats. Also, Leinster and Ulster contesting the HEC final didn’t improve southern moods.

Out: Ludd McGahan (coach – to Wallabies); Tomas O’Leary (London Irish); Leamy, Micko, Fla, Wally (retired), Yellow Card Magnet Lifeimi Mafi (some crowd of boshers in France)

In: Rob Penney (coach – Canterbury); Oooooooooooooooohh James Downey (Northampton); Casey Laulala (Cardiff); CJ Stander (Springbok underage flanker bosh factory), Sean Dougall (Rotherham)

All change at Munster. The embers of Generation Ligind which flickered out in Toulon have been blown away by the Osprey and Ulster winds of change. Since Toulon we’ve seen the exits (mostly to retirement) of Jirry, John Hayes, Micko, Denis Leamy, Wally, Ian Dowling, Barry Murphy and Tomas O’Leary and the exit from top class rugger of Marcus Horan, Strings and Stakhanov. Paul O’Connell is still going strong, but Ronan O’Gara’s form in the second half of the season was the worst he had shown in a red shirt in over a decade. Of the ligindary imports, Mafi has gone and Dougie Howlett turns 34 next month and is returning from a major injury. Add in the uncertainty over Felix Jones’ return to top form and you’ve virtually lost a first choice XV in 18 months.

The boss has gone too – Tony McGahan joining Dingo Deans team at Club Qantas Wallaby. Despite calls for a southern hemisphere big name like Wayne Smith to come in for two years to rebuild the side then hand it to Axel, former Canterbury underage coach Rob Penney will be taking the reins. Penney has a reputation as a no-nonsense kind of guy, and is already ruffling feathers, of golden child Keith Earls in the first instance (more anon).

On the playing field, the recruitment ranges from the bizarre to the intriguing. Looking at the squad from last year, you would have plotted a re-build around a core of Mike Sherry, BJ Botha, POC, Donnacha Ryan, POM, Conor Murray, Keith Earls and Simon Zebo. The strongest links there are Botha, POC and Keith Earls – with any of these three missing, it’s hard to see Munster getting the necessary wins on the road.

In Earls case, he has stated that he is sick to the back teeth of being moved around the backline, and has staked a claim to the 13 jersey as his ambition. Which makes it all the odder that Munster have recruited, and not for peanuts, former BNZ-er Casey Laulala from Cardiff – Laulala can pretty much only play 13 (though he has some experience at 12 and 11) , and it seems unlikely they have picked him for the bench. Here’s what Rob Penney had to say on that particular issue:

“In my discussions with Keith, we’ve got the ability to manage his needs and the team’s needs. Look, he’s a dedicated, committed team person. He’s made it very clear what his preference is and I respect that immensely. What we’ll endeavour to do is meet a majority of his needs within what the team needs are and hopefully he can just embrace that and get on and play for this team as well as he can so that he can further his international aspirations down the track.”

Riiiight. So Laulala will start at 13 by the looks of things. Then there is CJ Stander – this is a guy who has been earmarked as a future Springbok for a long time, who has now upped sticks to Munster to be their project player. To say it’s odd is an understatement – with all due respect to Ireland, young Afrikaaners do not grow up dreaming of wet Tuesdays with Deccie in Carton House. The likelihood is Munster have thrown a large wad of cash at him, persuaded him to put his Bok career on ice for a few years, and slotted him where they could – into the vacant project player role in this case.

It could go either way. Best case – he gives Munster the kind of go-forward carrier they lacked last season, balances the backrow well with POM and Cawlin while at 7, or Ronan and POM/Cawlin while at 6, frees up Conor Murray to carry less and pass more, and helps bring through some youngsters like Paddy Butler. The impact Pedrie Wannenbosh had at Ulster is a good comparison. Worst case – he marks the clock for two years and goes home at the first opportunity with a fatter wallet. Lets hope it’s the former. We don’t want to sound negative on it, but Stander is inexperienced and a lot is being asked of him – he’s talented and a good fit, but there is some Sykes risk in him.  It’s an unusual signing for a club which has put so much store in foreign recruits buying into what Munster rugby is all about [J. de Villiers (2009)].  There appears little chance of that with Stander.

Coming into Munster’s perennial problem position of inside centre is Oooooooooooohh James Downey, from the Saints. There are high hopes for Downey, but we fear they are too high. Downey is a pretty effective player, but he is essentially a journeyman and a one-trick-pony, and spent large chunks of last season behind Tom May in the Northampton pecking order. Even if he does play like he did in 2010-11, having a crash ball bosh merchant at 12 does not really suit either the kind of game Rob Penney apparently favours, or the galaxy of pretty decent outside backs Munster have – Earls, Zebo, Hurley, Jones and Howlett would be better served with a Paddy Wallace type at 12.  We can only presume he’ll be used in the same way that Saints deployed him, where any attempt to go wide is preceeded by a Downey smash up the middle.

On the plus side, Munster have a settled and powerful front 5, and the aforementioned outside backs. A front row of du Preez, Varley/Sherry, Botha won’t step backwards much and gets around the park a bit. The set-pieces will be solid, especially when you consider the second row combo. There isn’t much depth there, but the starters have class. Frankie has been banging the Dave Kilcoyne drum for a while – hopefully Stephen Archer and him get the chance to accumulate some experience this year in the engine room. Both South African props are technically excellent and the Irish deputies should be spongeing up as much of them as they can.  The importance of O’Connell cannot be overstated.  He’s the lightning rod in the pack, and while he’s increasingly prone to injury, when fit he’s still the best lock in Europe.  Munster need him to be available with greater frequency.

In the back three, Denis Hurley will get a chance to nail down the 15 shirt before Jones returns, and Simon Zebo will look to add more defensive solidity and greater nuance to his explosive attacking game. Howlett is the elder statesman, but he has value to add as the master of on-pitch defensive positioning – he has so much to teach the likes of Zebo and Luke O’Dea, and should be milked dry.

[Aside – our points about the props and Howlett give an insight into what foreign players can bring – add in the influence Wannenbosh had on Chris Henry, and you see it’s not all about on-field matters]

If Conor Murray reverts to his first half of 2011 form and Stander (or Butler) give the backrow a power jolt, the only other question mark is at 10. The incumbent is the mighty Ronan O’Gara, now 35. O’Gara has been the fulcrum of the Munster side for 13 years, but is finally showing signs of ageing – his effectiveness dipped markedly in the second half of last season (admittedly after a very productive first half). A new coach with a new direction would appear to be the perfect time to trial a new man and a new gameplan (in fact, on the face of it, it’s so blindingly obvious as to be the favoured course of action), but the notoriously competitive Rog is unlikely to accept being backup, nor is he likely to be diplomatic about it. Ian Keatley is presently the number 2, but he has yet to convince he has it at the highest level.

How Penney manages the succession in this key position may determine his legacy – O’Gara will probably start the season like a train in his determination to hold on to the Munster jersey until he is 58 38, but Keatley is going to get his chance sooner rather than later. If you see a Munster team line out for a HEC game with O’Gara wearing 22, postpone all other tasks – it will invariably get interesting.

On the youngster front, JJ Hanrahan is the NKOTB – he is an outhalf at present, but was a centre before his under-20 RWC performances, and it will be interesting to see what type of exposure he gets, and where. Munster have not had a settled and solid 12 since Trevor Halstead, and Hanrahan may yet be the solution there. Luke O’Dea will get more exposure on the wing, and in the pack, look out for Next Big Thing Ian Nagle, improving blindside Dave O’Callaghan and still-promising Tommy O’Donnell.

Verdict: Rob Penney looks a shrewd appointment.  His credentials are based on the number of high quality players he successfully delivered to the Canterbury Crusaders from the feeder team, as well as posing good results in the ITM Cup.  He seems to be aware that his role at Munster is to rebuild the team, but knows that it’s a results business and that Munster fans are tired at seeing Leinster win trophies and worried about Ulster stealing a march on them.

Munster are some of the way down the re-building path thanks to Ludd’s last 18 months, but where Ludd took a piecemeal, sticky-plaster approach to squad development, Penney will surely deliver something more cohesive.  But huge challenges remain, particularly at out-half.  Not only will it determine the style of play going forward, but the ease of Penney’s tenure will be largely decided by O’Gara’s attitude to his inevitable easing out.

Developing a coherent gameplan looks like the first port of call for Penney. Munster have gone from a 10-man team to all-cylinders attack to a mushy ineffective hybrid of slow ruck ball, lateral back play and first-man-out rumbles into the tackler. We never quite felt McGahan brought his vision to bear on the Munster team. With what is now a relatively inexperienced group keen to learn and improve, Penney should see his brand of rugby enacted on the field of play.  They need a sense of playing identity back – a style that becomes readily identifiable as Munster.

The fans might settle for a season which shows the groundwork for future success has been well-laid, if green shoots show well. And after the string of painful defeats in McGahan’s last two years (Toulon, Quins, Ulster, Ospreys), Munster fans will want to see their team do themselves justice in the big games.

We think it will be a difficult year, but one looked back on as the foundations of something better in retrospect. We fancy Sarries to top the HEC pool, but not with ironclad confidence – catching them is certainly not beyond Munster, but it’s likely to need O’Gara in vintage form and O’Connell 100% fit.  How they fare on the road is the big question, and the schedule has sent them to Paris in the first week to face Racing.  With Sarries still to come, they may need to return with a win.  We’re tentatively going for an Amlin excursion (but no silverware) and a top half finish (but no playoff) in the Pro12 – the absence of Micko will make it more difficult for the dirt-trackers to scratch out the kind of wins they have been getting in the last three years.  It’s the tough work that pays off in the end, and this season is about tough work for Munster – luckily the fans are on board, and Penney is likely to get an extended honeymoon period. Let’s hope they stay on board if he starts p*ssing of Radge or Keith Earls!