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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

PREVIEW: Munster V Connacht

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Photo By Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht will need to play a “smart” brand of Rugby in order to earn a victory at Thomond Park in Friday evening’s GuinnessPRO14 Rainbow Cup meeting with Munster

The Westerners were narrowly defeated by the Southern province, 20-17, in the side’s last meeting in March in a keenly contested interprovincial derby.

Despite the loss, Friend says there were plenty positives to take from the performance — which he described as smart — and he says applying those traits to Friday evening’s game will be crucial to any win.

“What we brought in that game at Thomond, more so in the game here(the December meeting of the team’s at the Sportsground), was that we defensively muscled up against them,” the Australian said.

“I thought our line out worked really well against them, in both attack and defence, and I thought we played a smart brand of Rugby, in terms of what we were doing with the ball, whether we were kicking it long or kicking for contestables. They were key areas that I felt worked for us and we have to make sure we replicate that and some on Friday night.”

Friend, meanwhile, paid tribute to Quinn Roux after the Irish international announced he will leave the province at the end of the season after seven years in Connacht green.

While the second row will be missed, the head coach wished him the best of luck for the future and thanked him for his service.

“He’s given an enormous amount to this province,” the former Australian sevens coach said.

“He leaves with our blessing and our respect. We would love to keep him, of course we would, but at the end of the day, people make decisions. It was a lengthy process we went through and a decision was made at the end.

“We have already begun the process of recruiting a new second row and we will obviously make an announcement about that in due course.”

Elsewhere, second row Gavin Thornbury says that Friday’s renewal of rivalries with Munster will provide players the opportunity to put their hands up for international selection with the Irish national team.

Ireland recently announced summer tests against the USA and Japan in Dublin and Thornbury says that competing against other players in the fold for national team squad berths will give him — and every other eligible player — the platform to showcase their abilities and further their international ambitions.

“They are always big,” the 27-year-old said of the interprovincial clash.

“Every time an interpro is played, It’s played fully and 100%, no matter who is playing. It’s another chance to put yourself in the shop window. All I can do is make sure I get myself as mentally and physically in as good a position as possible to put in a performance on Friday. I’m looking forward to that.”

Irish line out coach Paul O’Connell attended Connacht training last week and Thornbury said it was a great opportunity to show a member of the national team coaching staff their qualities close up.

“It was good to get him down and show him what we’re doing here,” he said.

“He would have always been someone I looked up to, so it was nice to meet him and introduce myself and just have a conversation with him. We had a good conversation and I was pretty happy with that. Hopefully, now I just back it up with performances and that’s probably the biggest thing.”

Thornbury, who joined the Westerners in 2017 from Leinster, was superb in the last game between the teams, a 20-17 home win for Munster in March, and he said he is keen to make a similar impression on Friday and help the team go one better and claim a win.

“Yeah, it was good,” the Dublin native said when asked how he would assess his performance in his last trip to Thomond Park.

“I think a lot of things probably came off for me that mightn’t have come off on another night. Obviously, I was fully gutted with the result. I thought we put ourselves in a position where we could have won the game and unfortunately it didn’t come through.

“Personally, some stuff came off that I was really happy with but there’s a lot to keep working on.”

Source – Connacht Rugby By John O’Sullivan 

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Pro14

Greencore Munster Rugby Academy Update | May 2021

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(Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It has been a busy past month for the Greencore Munster Rugby Academy.

Ian Costello was appointed to the role of Academy Manager in April and will return to the province in the summer having worked in England for the past five years with Nottingham and then Wasps. See full details here.

We can confirm that former Munster player Andi Kyriacou also rejoins the province as Elite Player Development Officer (Forwards). Andi has previously coached at Cardiff Blues, Sale Sharks, Russia Rugby and Nottingham.

Ben Healy made a further two appearances for the senior side over the past month and has now featured in 16 of Munster’s 22 games so far this season.

There have been 43 senior appearances for Academy players across the Guinness PRO14, Champions Cup and Rainbow Cup in the 2020/21 campaign.

Academy trio Jack Crowley, Alex Kendellen and Conor Phillips have been training with the Ireland 7s team and have been named in their squad for this weekend’s International Rugby 7s tournament. See full details here.

On the injury front, Eoin O’Connor (knee), John Hodnett (achilles), James French (hamstring), Jonathan Wren (hamstring), Cian Hurley (thumb), Scott Buckley (knee) and Thomas Ahern (knee) are continuing to rehab.

We spoke to the Academy’s Lead Physiotherapist, Shane Malone (above), for the latest update.

Current Academy crop…

“We all want to see the lads do well because we see on a daily basis how hard they work. They are exceptionally dedicated and just a really good group of characters.

“It’s great to see the nine guys [who are moving up to the senior squad next year] rewarded for their hard work and getting the opportunity to prove themselves at pro level.”

Jack Crowley, Alex Kendellen and Conor Phillips involved with the Ireland 7s…

“It’s a great opportunity for guys to go up and prove themselves and gain a different skillset. They also have the opportunity to experience a different high performance environment.

“For our point of view, it’s been seamless because we have a very good relationship with the IRFU physios. We speak about the players that are involved on a weekly basis.”

Helping players to recover from long-term injuries…

“If you take John Hodnett’s injury as an example, the surgery on an Achilles rupture happens within a few days. Obviously with a severe injury like that you want to get as good a start as possible to get him back playing rugby as quickly and safely as possible.

“We gave John a bit of time away from the HPC to recuperate afterwards and leave everything settle down but we’re involved from day dot where we ring him at home to make sure he’s doing all the swelling management and all the acute care correctly.

“When he came back in here, it was full throttle from then on.

“It’s another opportunity for guys when they are injured to concentrate on other areas and John is developing his upper and lower body and he’s flying with that.

“He’s a young player so all that rehab and all that strength work is going to stand to him later in his career.”

Working with the sub-Academy players…

“Myself and Lorcan Kavanagh are the Academy physios. Lorcan also works with the sub-Academy/National Talent Squad group so we look after them if they pick up injuries.

“Academy staff look after how the sub-Academy players are developing from an athletic development point of view and also an injury prevention point of view as well.

“By the time lads get into the Academy, we usually have a very good idea of where they’re at and what they need to work on. It’s a real advantage for us to have that information as opposed to starting from scratch when they join the Academy, it’s really important.”

Greencore Munster Rugby Academy

Fifteen players commenced the 2020/21 season with two additional players, Cian Hurley and Conor Phillips, joining in January 2021. See the full Academy squad here.

Nine players from the current group will advance to senior contracts ahead of the 2021/22 season – Thomas Ahern, Jack Crowley, Jack Daly, Jake Flannery, James French, Seán French, Ben Healy, John Hodnett and Josh Wycherley.

Eoghan Clarke has completed his time with the academy and linked up with Championship side Jersey Reds at the end of March.

Seven academy players made their Guinness PRO14 debuts this season – Thomas Ahern, Jack Crowley, Jack Daly, Seán French, Cian Hurley, Alex Kendellen and Josh Wycherley. Young prop Wycherley also made his Champions Cup debut this season.

Out-half Ben Healy leads the way with senior appearances on the Academy front this season having featured in 16 of Munster’s 22 games, scoring 77 points.

66% – The future continues to be bright with an expected highest representation of academy graduates in over eight years in the squad next season.

Images & Content from Munster Rugby

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Pro14

O’Brien and Doris back training ahead of Ulster test

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Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Leinster Rugby head coach Leo Cullen has issued an injury update ahead of Friday’s Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup game against Ulster Rugby at the RDS Arena (KO 8.15pm – live on eir Sport and RTÉ Radio).

Both Jimmy O’Brien (hamstring) and Caelan Doris (calf) hope to resume full training this week after recovering from their respective injuries and, provided all goes well, both hope to be available for selection for Friday’s game.

Jamison Gibson-Park will continue to be managed this week with his hamstring injury while Jack Conan, who went off for a Head Injury Assessment against Connacht Rugby, will follow the Graduated Return to Play Protocols this week.

Unfortunately, Ciarán Frawley injured his shoulder and his hamstring against Connacht Rugby and will be unavailable for selection this week with further assessment required on his injuries.

There was no new update on a number of players: Rhys Ruddock (calf), Harry Byrne (hamstring), Johnny Sexton (concussion), Will Connors (knee), Jack Dunne (ankle), Adam Byrne (quad), Dan Leavy (knee), Conor O’Brien (knee) and Max Deegan (knee)

Images & Content from Leinster Rugby

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