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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

Leinster Smash Glasgow in Another Win

Leinster have made it 13 wins in a row in the PRO14 this season with another impressive victory

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(Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Leinster have continued their winning streak this season with a dominant 55-19 victory over the Glasgow Warriors in the PRO14 at the RDS tonight.

A hat-trick of tries from man of the match second-row Ryan Baird along with another hat-trick for Dave Kearney and brace from James Lowe plus a try for Scott Fardy saw the hosts ease to victory once again. 

Leinster made the perfect start going through the phases following a scrum just outside the Glasgow 22 and youngster Ryan Baird barged over the line from close-range. Harry Byrne slotted over the conversion to make it 7-0 with only four minutes on the clock. 

Things only got worse for the visitors less than 10 minutes later as they gave the ball away near their own 22, allowing Leinster to bring the ball forward and after a number of phases with a penalty advantage coming Byrne sent a long-pass out to Dave Kearney who touched down in the right corner. Bryne couldn’t provide the extras this time around leaving it at 12-0. 

However, the Warriors had the better of the possession over the next few minutes and Leinster were punished on 26 minutes, as the away side broke from the back of scrum before a quick pass off a ruck found Tommy Seymour, who ran a beautiful line to race over the line and touch down. Peter Horne converted to cut the lead down to 12-7. 

Leinster came roaring back though and were in for their third try just after the half hour mark as they struck down the blindside with lovely hands from Byrne to Fardy, who sent it to James Lowe who waltzed in for the five-pointer. Byrne found his range from the tee once again to make it 19-7. 

With the clock in red the hosts secured the bonus-point try as they went through a couple of phases off the back of a line-out five-metres out from the opposition line with captain Fardy eventually barrelling over. Byrne was off target with the kick meaning it was 24-7 in favour of the home side come the half-time whistle. 

Despite Leinster’s dominance in the closing stages it was the Warriors who had the better opening in the second period and Kyle Steyn finished a lovely move down the left wing with some great hands from his teammates in the build-up to put him darting home. Horne couldn’t convert this time around to make it 24-12 with only three minutes gone in the half. 

Although that score was cancelled out on 52 minutes as Lowe was trundling down the left wing and despite the defence’s best efforts the No 11 held them off to put the ball down for his second try of the game. Byrne again misplaced his kick to leave it at 29-12. 

Five minutes later and they were further ahead as Baird was sent through a gap in the midfield just inside the opposition half and the second-row out paced everyone to touch-down under the posts. Byrne provided the extras this time around to extend the advantage. 

With 15 minutes remaining Baird secured a well deserved hat-trick as he broke down the short-side from five-meters out to score the try. Replacement fly-half Ciaran Frawley couldn’t squeeze the kick between the posts from the right-hand touchline meaning it stayed 41-12 heading into the closing stages. 

The Warriors managed to score another try as the clock ticked into the final 10 minutes as they made the most of a break in open play with a couple of lovely offloads ending up with prop Alex Allen running under the posts. Ruairidh Jackson kicked the conversion. 

Leinster weren’t finished in the try department however as they charged forward once again with less than five minutes left and Fardy fed Kearney down the left-wing to jog in for his second five-pointer of the match. Frawley converted this time making it 48-19. 

In the final moments Glasgow tried to play the ball inside their own try-line only to send a loose pass into the path of Kearney who pounced to secure a hat-trick of his own. Frawley smashed over the extra two with the last kick of the game to leave the final score at 55-19.

Next up for Conference A’s runaway leaders Leinster is a trip to South Africa to take on the Cheetahs in three weeks time as they look to maintain their winning streak, while Glasgow will head to Wales to play the Ospreys on the same day. 

Player Ratings

Starting XV:

Hugo Keenan (7), Dave Kearney (9), Jimmy O’Brien (7), Joe Tomane (8), James Lowe (8), Harry Bryne (8), Luke McGrath (8); Peter Dooley (7), Sean Cronin (7), Michael Bent (7), Ryan Baird (9), Scott Fardy (9), Josh Murphy (7), Will Connors (7), Max Deegan (8)

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Pro14

PRO14 Issue Statement on Coronavirus

The PRO14 have released a statement regarding their plans for the remainder of the season after the outbreak of the Coronavirus

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(photo by Peter Fitzpatrick/Action Plus via Getty Images)

The PRO14 have released a statement to express their approach to the remainder of the season after the recent outbreak of the Coronavirus.

Following the postponement of the Six Nations fixture between Ireland and Italy, PRO14 confirmed that this weekend’s games between Zebre and Ospreys and Benetton against Ulster would be postponed as Italian Rugby called off all rugby fixtures in the country this weekend. 

Now the tournament organisers have confirmed that they are working with all the respective authorities to see how the season will unfold. 

“In response to the uncertainty caused by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, PRO14 Rugby has initiated a number of measures to meet the challenge this poses to Guinness PRO14 fixtures. Since last weekend, detailed scenario-planning has been on-going and it is paramount that the well-being and health of teams, their supporters, staff and match officials are not compromised. To date, no country has implemented a travel ban, however, restrictions put in place around mass gatherings in Italy have caused the postponement of two Guinness PRO14 fixtures scheduled to take place this weekend. The Chief Medical Officers from each of the Guinness PRO14’s participating unions – the FIR, IRFU, SARU, SRU & WRU – will provide tournament organisers with regular updates from their relevant health and government authorities. This includes (but is not limited to) Situation Reports released by their governments or health authorities, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in their country and any travel restrictions to and from that country. Should the situation change PRO14 Rugby will fully abide by any instruction or restriction from the medical authorities/governments of each of our territories,” the statement read. 

It went on to explain that as of now all the games will go ahead as expected, but they will reschedule if needed. 

However, if there is no suitable time to relocate the match it will result in a 0-0 as seen at the recent Rugby World Cup when games were called off due to severe weather conditions in Japan. 

“Currently, matches will take place as scheduled unless otherwise directed by local or national authorities or governments. PRO14 Rugby will remain in frequent contact with the CMOs of our participating unions to remain fully informed of the conditions in each territory. Beyond the two postponements this weekend, all scheduled Guinness PRO14 fixtures are set to go ahead – including the refixed Round 11 game between Dragons and Benetton Rugby on March 6. A process has already begun to find alternative dates for this weekend’s postponed fixtures involving Zebre Rugby Club v Ospreys and Benetton Rugby v Ulster Rugby. In the event that any future games are postponed and no alternative dates can be found to ensure the fixture is fulfilled, the board of Celtic Rugby DAC has agreed that both teams will be awarded two match points and the game will be deemed a 0-0 draw. This stands in line with current World Rugby practice and resembles protocols in other rugby codes and international sports,” the statement finished. 

Should the virus continue to spread it will more than likely see further disruption to the rugby calendar and the hope will be that it doesn’t have too much of an effect on the standings league table come the end of the campaign.

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Pro14

Edinburgh & Cardiff each change 5.

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(Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

Scrum-half Charlie Shiel is handed his first home start as Edinburgh Rugby make five changes to their starting XV for tomorrow night’s Guinness PRO14 match against Cardiff Blues at BT Murrayfield (kick-off 7.35pm) – live on Premier Sports

Shiel is selected at half-back alongside a revamped centre pairing that sees George Taylor and James Johnstone named in midfield for the Conference B clash.

The capital club welcome back Scotland internationalists Grant Gilchrist and Jamie Bhatti to the forward pack in the only other alterations to the side that claimed a bonus-point win over Connacht last weekend.

Ahead of the fixture, Head Coach Richard Cockerill, said: “We need to make sure we’re on it. We should be well motivated since we’re on a good run, but we need to make sure we get all the basic things right.

“The weather will be a little bit better than last two weeks, but we need to be really functional and practical in how we play. We just need to go and win the game – do whatever it takes to win.

“I’m not fussy about our style. Substance, physicality and mentality should be 10 out of 10 for us, and we should go out with confidence to make sure we get our performance right.”

An unchanged back-three sees Hoyland continue at fullback with wingers Duhan van der Merwe – a try-scorer in his last five consecutive fixtures – and Eroni Sau once again named on the flanks.

Centres Taylor and Johnstone form all-new midfield pairing, with stand-off Simon Hickey – who contributed 12 points from his boot in last weekend’s win over Connacht – and the aforementioned Shiel combined at half-back.

Prop duo Bhatti and Simon Berghan are released from Scotland’s Guinness Six Nations squad and pack down alongside hooker Mike Willemse in a rotated front-row.

Scotland lock Gilchrist – who skippers the side – links-up with Lewis Carmichael in the second-row, as an unchanged back-row trio sees Nick Haining, Luke Crosbie and Viliame Mata complete the pack.

Cardiff have also made 5 changes to their starting team.

John Mulvihill’s side travel to the Scottish capital looking for back-to-back wins in the Championship, but face a tough prospect against the in-form Conference B leaders.

Summerhill, who has five tries to his name this season, suffered a hamstring injury in the Challenge Cup victory over Calvisano in January.

The wing, who replaces Ryan Edwards as the only change amongst the backline, joins Hallam Amos and Jason Harries in the back three, after the duo starred in Sunday’s bonus point win over Benetton Rugby.

Wing Harries returns to BT Murrayfield to face his former club, having scored two tries in this fixture last season as the Blues claimed a memorable victory at the Scottish capital.

Garyn Smith and Ben Thomas continue their partnership in midfield, as former Edinburgh outside half Jason Tovey links up with Lloyd Williams at half back.

There is a new-look front row, with Brad Thyer, Kristian Dacey and Dmitri Arhip all returning to the starting XV.

Rory Thornton is replaces James Ratti in the second row to combine with Seb Davies, who dotted down in the win over Benetton. An unchanged back row of Shane Lewis-Hughes, Olly Robinson and Josh Turnbull complete the pack.

Head coach John Mulvihill is relishing the challenge ahead and wants to finish the latest block of Guinness PRO14 games with a win before his side head into a three-week interval.

“We can take real confidence from our performance in the second half against Benetton as we travel up to Edinburgh. We were clinical in attack, solid in defence and we’ll need to maintain those standards for the full 80 minutes at Murrayfield.

“We’re fully aware of the challenges ahead against Edinburgh. They’re top of our table and have a lot of quality throughout, even with some big names missing through the Six Nations. They’re top of the table because of the depth they’ve built in that squad.

“We’ve got good form on the road this year, and that was something we spoke about before the season started. We need to pick up points on the road, and we’ve won up in Edinburgh before so we can take confidence from that.

“It’s great to have Aled back. He’s a really good player who gives us a spark and finish on the edge. He’s someone who can step up and keep some international boys out of the team because of his form.

“He’s a really good finisher, he’s quick, good on the high ball and defensively he’s one of our best.”

Another player returning from injury is Kirby Myhill who is named on the bench, and is set to feature for the first time in 2020.

Also included as a replacement is lock Ben Murphy, who could feature for the first time this season, having also impressed when featuring for Merthyr in the Indigo Group Premiership this season.

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