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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.

Pro14

Joey Carbery set for return this weekend for Munster

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(Photo by Andrew Surma/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Munster team has been named for Friday night’s Guinness PRO14 clash against Cardiff Blues at the Cardiff Arms Park (8pm).

There are six changes to the starting XV that defeated Edinburgh last time out, while in the replacements there is the welcome return of Joey Carbery who is named in his first match-day squad since January 2020.

The opening try scorer in Murrayfield last weekend, Jack O’Donoghue captains the side for Friday night’s encounter as he and Chris Cloete are joined by Jack O’Sullivan in the back row.

Fineen Wycherley scrums down next to Jean Kleyn in the engine room with Kevin O’Byrne stepping into the front row in between James Cronin and John Ryan.

Shane Daly returns from Ireland camp to retain his position on the left wing with Calvin Nash named on the opposite flank as Mike Haley completes the back three at full-back.

The centre partnership sees Rory Scannell lining up next to Damian de Allende and Nick McCarthy joins JJ Hanrahan in the half-back pairing.

If sprung from the bench Billy Holland will move ahead of Ronan O’Gara for all-time Munster appearances and become the second most capped player for the province for his 241st appearance in red.

Paddy Patterson is in line to make his Munster debut as he provides the scrum-half cover.

Find out you need to know ahead of the game here.

Munster: Mike Haley; Calvin Nash, Rory Scannell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; JJ Hanrahan, Nick McCarthy; James Cronin, Kevin O’Byrne, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Jack O’Donoghue (C), Chris Cloete, Jack O’Sullivan.

Replacements: Niall Scannell, Liam O’Connor, Roman Salanoa, Billy Holland, Gavin Coombes, Paddy Patterson, Joey Carbery, Darren Sweetnam.

Player News: Academy lock Thomas Ahern was unavailable for selection after picking up a knock in training this week.

Video | Press Pass

Hear from Defence Coach JP Ferreira and Liam O’Connor ahead of the game.

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6 Nations

Huge boost for Ulster & Ireland as Henderson signs new deal

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Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Ulster captain, Iain Henderson, who has represented the province on 116 occasions, has secured his future with the club for the next two years.

Craigavon-born Henderson, who took up the role of Ulster captain in 2019, has progressed through the Ulster development system. Starting with mini rugby at Academy RFC, his early playing career saw him reach the final of the Danske Bank Schools Cup in 2010 with Belfast Royal Academy, represent Queen’s University Belfast as well as Ireland at Age-Grade level, before quickly rising through the ranks of senior professional rugby in the province.

Iain, who captained Ireland for the first time against France in this year’s Guinness Six Nations, made his international debut against South Africa in November 2012 and has won 60 caps to date for his country. 

A Lions tourist in 2017, Iain succeeded Rory Best as Ulster captain in 2019.  

David Nucifora, IRFU Performance Director, commented,

“Over the past few seasons Iain has really developed into a leader within both the Ireland and Ulster squads. He is part of the national leadership group, captaining Ireland recently for the first time and we are delighted to have ensured that he continues his career in Ireland.”

Iain Henderson, commented,

“It has been a great honour to captain both Ulster and Ireland in recent times. Irish rugby is in a good place despite the disruption the sport has experienced during the pandemic. As professionals, we have been in a privileged position to be able to continue playing and I know we all hope to see supporters back in the Aviva and Kingspan in the near future.”

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Pro14

Ulster issue positive update on Coetzee injury

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Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Many Ulster fans feared they may have seen the last appearance of Springbok Marcell Coetzee in an Ulster shirt after he was helped from the field on Friday night but a medical update has been issued which appears to be more positive than what was initially feared.

Update below:

The Ulster Rugby Medical Performance Team has issued a squad update ahead of Friday’s Guinness PRO14 Round 13 fixture against Ospreys at Kingspan Stadium.

Marcell Coetzee suffered a thigh muscle contusion in Ulster Rugby’s Guinness PRO14 Round 12 match against Glasgow Warriors. His availability for selection for the upcoming game against Ospreys will be assessed through the coming week.

There are no other new injury concerns arising from Friday night’s game at Scotstoun Stadium.

Squad updates in association with The Ulster Independent Clinic.

Update ends.

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