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Pro14

Has Ulster Rugby Turned a Corner?

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Written by Shona Sullivan
Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images

A year ago, Ulster Rugby was in a dark place. A continuing exodus of players following on from the previous season, Ulster’s Director of Rugby sacked and its under-fire CEO leaving the province in complete disarray.

Ulster had no knockout rugby to play for in either the European Champions Cup or Pro14 competitions (unless you count the play-off against the Ospreys to determine whether or not Ulster would qualify for the 2018-19 Champions Cup). Ulster’s final standing at 4th place in their conference was well below the expectations of fans and club.

Fast-forward to 30th March 2019, Ulster are not only in a good position to reach the Pro14 play-offs, they are playing in the Champions Cup quarter-final against the current holders, Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Ulster run Leinster painfully close in what is a gargantuan battle between both provinces. Despite being arguably the better team on the day, Ulster lose narrowly to Leinster 21-18. Rather than feeling dejected, Ulster fans leaving the stadium on Saturday night and elsewhere have an overwhelming sense of positivity about what is still to come with the province.

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You could argue that the beginning of the 2018-19 season was a little shambolic. Newly signed Head Coach, Dan McFarland was contracted to the Scottish Rugby Union as Forwards coach until January 2019, and although Ulster were able to secure his services earlier, it was a mere 12 days before their opening Pro14 match against the Scarlets, missing their entire pre-season preparations. Hardly ideal. Fans feared the club was continuing where it left off, with a somewhat amateur approach to how it went about its business. The first few months of the season passed without a CEO to replace Shane Logan, with Operations Director, Bryn Cunningham holding the fort.

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This is Dan McFarland’s first gig as a Head Coach, but he is highly regarded among his peers, and judging by his knack for saying all the right things in media interviews and Q&As with fans, you get the feeling he is an excellent man manager; a skill that is becoming all the more crucial when it comes to professional rugby. Dan Soper, highly-decorated schools and club coach, joined McFarland’s team as Skills Coach, working alongside Jared Payne, Defence Coach and Dwayne Peel, Assistant Coach. Ex-Edinburgh stalwart, Roddy Grant will join Ulster next season as Forwards Coach, replacing the outgoing Aaron Dundon.

At the end of October, Ulster Rugby finally announced the appointment of its new CEO, Jonny Petrie, Managing Director at Edinburgh Rugby, who would take up his role in the New Year. By this point, you could sense a change for the better was on the horizon. Petrie, former Glasgow and Scotland captain has not only a sound business pedigree, having worked as Head of Sponsorship at SSE, he is also a rugby man through-and-through. Although he has been in his post for only a few short months, he already appears to be more visible and accessible than his predecessor, attending fan Q&As and engaging with schools and clubs.

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Ulster had a shaky start to the season; their largest ever defeat by Munster away and losing at home for the first time in 58 years against Connacht being two games that Ulster will not remember fondly. However, a spate of solid new signings and promotions announced by Ulster has bolstered confidence within the squad and among its fans. Wallabies lock, Sam Carter from the Brumbies, Irish-qualified prop, Gareth Milasinovich from Worcester, and most notably, loosehead prop, Jack McGrath will move to Ulster from Leinster – yes, the Irish international and British and Irish Lion. Rising stars from the Ulster Academy, Michael Lowry, Eric O’Sullivan and James Hume have all been promoted into the senior squad. A number of contract extensions have been secured, including that of Ulster’s powerful backrower, Marcell Coetzee, who has committed to the club for a further three years after his first two seasons were dogged by long-term injury.

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The squad is now starting to take shape with a backbone of Irish internationals in Rory Best, Jacob Stockdale, Jordi Murphy, John Cooney and Iain Henderson; key club men like Darren Cave, Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey rotating in the midfield, Billy Burns at out-half, Marty Moore and Eric O’Sullivan in the front row, Marcell Coetzee, Nick Timoney and Sean Reidy bolstering back row options; complemented by emerging young talent in Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, Matty Rea, Rob Lyttle and James Hume to name a few.

This Six Nations window can be a disruptive period for most clubs in the Pro14, but Ulster has fared well despite losing its Irish internationals, winning four out of five games and drawing in one. Coaching systems are starting to develop, with Ulster’s defence improving (even keeping the Ospreys to a score of nil away), and being more clinical in attack.

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Most people have been realistic about the work that is required at Ulster by the new CEO and coaching team, with many believing that it will be a three-year rebuilding period – to bed in structures and plans, to blood young talent and to astutely recruit overseas players – before we see meaningful results. Dare we say it, but Saturday’s Champions Cup thriller against Leinster might just have demonstrated that Ulster is well and truly having a revival and are possibly ahead of schedule. Ulster’s defence for most parts of the game was watertight with suffocating line speed and 251 tackles made. Tackles were not only made, but they were aggressive – as were the carries, most notably from Iain Henderson, Stuart McCloskey, Marcell Coetzee and Kieran Treadwell. At the end of the game, bodies were strewn across the pitch after such a literally bruising encounter with the current champions. You could sense the mutual respect demonstrated by players from both provinces as they shook hands and embraced; a feeling you perhaps wouldn’t have had as recently as the 5th January, after Leinster’s previous despatching of Ulster in January by 40 points to 7.

Of course this was only one match, and Ulster often ups its game when it comes to play-offs, but this game felt like a real turning-point when they were able to go toe-to-toe with the reigning champions, so achingly close to beating them, and at such an early stage in the transformation period of the club with so much more still to come, we can maybe whisper – the future looks bright for Ulster.

** EXCLUSIVE DAVID LLOYD OFFER FOR ULSTER RUGBY FANS **

Premiership

Ulster to play Saracens in Pre-Season doubleheader.

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Photo By John Dickson/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Ulster Rugby will get the 2021/22 season underway with home and away pre-season friendlies against Saracens in September. 

The Ulster men will face the five-time Premiership and three-times Champions Cup winners at Kingspan Stadium on Friday 3 September (kick-off 7pm).

The squad will then make the journey to central London for the away clash on Thursday 9 September (kick-off 5pm) at the Honorary Artillery Company. 

This will be the first time the two sides have faced each other since the pool stages of the 2015/2016 Heineken Champions Cup.

Both matches against Sarries, who return to the Gallagher Premiership this season, will act as preparation for Ulster ahead of the newly launched United Rugby Championship, and the challenges they will face in this year’s Heineken Champions Cup.

Admission to the home pre-season friendly on 3 September is included in 2021/22 Season Tickets, as well as access to all home regular season fixtures in the United Rugby Championship and Heineken Champions Cup.

Existing Season Ticket holders have until 5pm this Friday (30 July) to renew their packages, and can do so online at ulsterrugby.com/seasontickets.

New purchasers can ensure they are notified first about new Season Tickets as they become available by registering their interest here.

The availability of match tickets sold individually will be dependent upon available capacity, in-line with government regulations. Further details will be released in due course.

Source – Ulster Rugby

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Pro14

Sharks sign former Wallaby & Munster 2nd Row.

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The Cell C Sharks are delighted to welcome three new players to the Shark tank as we continue to build our squad ahead of the United Rugby Championship (URC), commencing in September.

Due to the longevity of the URC Tournament, in is important to bolster squad depth and have the talent to be a success in this grueling northern hemisphere competition, while balancing player welfare.

To this end, the Cell C Sharks will be welcoming both local and international flavour to Durban and are proud to announce the signings of centre Ben Tapuai, utility back Eduan Keyter and lock Gerbrandt Grobler.

Tapuai is a former Reds Super Rugby star who spent six years in Brisbane where he accumulated 64 appearances, before adding a further 12 with the Western Force. During that time, he made seven test appearances for the Wallabies between 2011 and 2012.

He has spent the last five years playing in the UK and will bring huge amounts of intellectual capital given his experiences of northern hemisphere rugby for Bath and Harlequins where he is approaching a combined 100 appearances for the English teams.

So highly rated was he as a youngster that he he was selected for the 2007 Australian Schoolboys team ahead of James O’Connor. No stranger to success, he played in the 2011 Super Rugby final won by the Reds and more recently in Harlequins’ Premiership final victory last month.

25-year-old Eduan Keyter recently impressed against the Cell C Sharks in the opening round of their Carling Currie Cup clash and is currently the top try-scorer in the competition with six touchdowns.

He made his senior debut against the Cell C Sharks two years ago in Griquas’ 37-13 victory over the Cell C Sharks and in the most recent match, won by the Cell C Sharks (30-16) in Kimberley, Keyter scored one of his team’s two tries.

The third signing, Gerbrandt Grobler, currently hails from Stade Francais. He is a local talent who started his junior career with the Bulls but moved to Western Province as a senior, representing the province at Currie Cup level and the Stormers in Super Rugby between 2012 and 2014 before making the move north.

He has played high profile rugby in both the UK and France, moving from Cape Town in South Africa to Racing 92 for two years before moving to Ireland where he turned out for Munster, then to England where he enjoyed two seasons with Gloucester, playing under former Sharks lock and Lions coach Johan Ackermann before returning to the Top 14 with Stade Francais last year.

We welcome the three new signings to a Cell C Sharks side committed to playing an awesome exciting and winning brand of rugby, with the aim of becoming an internationally acclaimed team that tastes success and wins silverware on a regular basis.

Source Cell C Sharks

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Pro14

Edinburgh Rugby appoint new Head Coach

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(Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Edinburgh Rugby have appointed Scotland Assistant Coach Mike Blair as the club’s new Head Coach.

The former Edinburgh and Scotland captain made over 150 appearances for the club (2001-2012) and returns from a five-year term with the national team, where he was recruited by Head Coach Gregor Townsend to occupy a dual role with Glasgow Warriors in 2017.

He joined Glasgow as Assistant Coach in 2016 and operated in that capacity for club and country until 2019 – helping the club reach the PRO14 semi-final and Grand Final (2018 and 2019) and two Champions Cup quarter-finals (2017 and 2019) – before focussing fully on national team matters for the past two years.

Blair’s contribution was recognised recently with his appointment as Interim Scotland Head Coach, only for the matches to be abandoned as coronavirus affected the camp and that of their opponents.

The recent departure of Richard Cockerill then presented a timely opportunity for Blair to take on the reins of the club he represented over a decade, having been born and bred in the capital city and schooled at Edinburgh Academy.

Mike Blair, said: “The first emotion is one of pride. I’ve lived in Edinburgh most of my life, played 11 seasons at the club and still live in the city, so having that attachment combine with the opportunity to lead the squad is really special for me.

“I’ve learned a lot from working with quality coaches like Dave Rennie, Jason O’Halloran and Gregor Townsend, in particular and over the years, and have been able to develop and adapt a philosophy that I feel should benefit the talent we have at the club.

“It’s a really exciting squad. There’s a good balance of experience and backgrounds and I’m looking forward to getting to know the players and their strengths better so we can mould that into making Edinburgh both good to watch and successful.

“It’s also a really good time to come in with all the excitement around the launch of the new stadium this summer. It’s a massive, watershed moment for the club. We all want to get that packed out with supporters from the outset and build an atmosphere the players deserve and the fans can be proud of.”

Edinburgh Rugby Managing Director, Douglas Struth, added: “We’re delighted to welcome Mike back to the club as our Head Coach, having watched his development into a first-rate coach over the past six years.

“Not only does he bring that expertise, but Mike is also a local man, a club centurion, and somebody who became a home-grown legend in an Edinburgh Rugby jersey.

“That’s really important to us and is a fantastic illustration of our ambition to promote and develop local stars of the future.

“It’s a new era for the club, with a new stadium and new tournament formats, and we believe Mike is the right man to continue the development of our tactical approach and winning mentality on the field, and our culture and connection to the wider rugby community off it.”

Prior to coaching, Blair was a player of worldwide repute.

He earned 85 caps for his country and toured with the British & Irish Lions in 2009 – the same year Edinburgh Rugby finished as runners-up in the then Magners League – and played a major role in the club’s storied run to the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2012.

He also played professional club rugby in England for Newcastle Falcons and in France with Brive, all experiences which contribute significantly to his depth of knowledge and understanding of the sport.

Scottish Rugby Chief Executive, Mark Dodson, said: “We’re really pleased to see Mike take this next step on his coaching journey with Edinburgh Rugby, recognising the excellent contribution he’s made at both Glasgow and Scotland over the past six years.

“He’s an exceptional Scottish coach who is hungry to deliver success for a club he cares a great deal about.

“He’s done a fantastic job of developing players in all of his roles, many of whom have shone on the biggest stage for Scotland and, more recently, the British & Irish Lions.

“We’re looking forward to watching him and the club develop further, together, as the beginning of this new era for Edinburgh Rugby, targeting a regular return to the knockout rounds of domestic and European Cup competitions and competing for silverware in the seasons ahead.

“His existing knowledge of the player group and lasting affinity with the club’s fanbase make this an excellent and exciting appointment.”

Source – Scotland Rugby

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