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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 http://gty.im/1134133252 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.

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Pro14

Ulster Rugby star suffers pre-season ACL tear

9 months out.

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(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Not the news that any Ulster fans want.

Another new signing struck down by injury before the season has even started.

Gareth Milasinovich who joined the province from Worcester Warriors was struck down in the last couple of weeks with an ACL tear that will see him on the sidelines for approximately 9 months.

Ulster Rugby fans have become accustomed to similar situations over the last number of seasons with many new exciting signings being struck down very early into their Ulster careers with ‘big’ injuries’.

Jared Payne ruptured an achilles tendon very early in his Ulster career and other big-name casualties include Marcel Coetzee and Jean Dysell who also suffered ACL injuries in their opening seasons with Ulster Rugby.

We wish Gareth a speedy recovery and look forward to seeing him and the other new recruits at Ulster on the field really soon.

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Pro14

Cheetahs Make Four More Signings

After announcing the arrival of Ruan Pienaar last week the Cheetahs have added a further four players to their squad for next season

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(Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The Free State Cheetahs have confirmed the signings of four more players ahead of the 2019/20 PRO14 season. 

Only last week they announced the signing of veteran scrum-half Ruan Pienaar but he will be joined at the club by Rhyno Smith, Chris Massyn, Chris Smit and Wilmar Arnoldi.

Smith currently plays for the Sharks and is a utility back who was on loan with the Cheetahs last season but has now made his switch permanent with a three-year contract.

Massyn on the other hand is a loose forward most frequently used as a flanker. The 25-year-old led the University of Stellenbosch Maties to the 2019 Varsity Cup and has signed a two-year deal.

Smit also claimed victory in the 2019 Varsity Cup and was named player of the tournament before signing for Griquas. He plays as a centre usually but can also play at fly-half if needed and joins on a two-year contract.

Hooker Arnoldi is also coming in from Griquas on another two-year contract.

All four will join up with the squad after finishing the Currie Cup campaign with their respective provinces, but things are certainly looking on the up heading into the new season for the Cheetahs.

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Premiership

Worcester Coach on the Move

Worcester Warriors head coach Rory Duncan could be set to leave the club very soon according to reports

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Worcester Warriors head coach Rory Duncan has been given permission to speak to other clubs according to reports in the Worcester News. 

The news outlet claim that they have been informed by the club that they do not see Duncan as a part of their future plans.

“The club has put in place a strategic plan for the future of Warriors. We do not envisage Rory Duncan being part of those plans and, therefore, we have given Rory permission to seek opportunities elsewhere,” a club spokesperson said

Duncan has impressed with stints at the Cheetahs and the Warriors, and a return to the Cheetahs looked to be on the cards until the club announced Hawies Fourie as their new coach.

However, the Southern Kings are currently looking for a new head coach and Duncan is among a four-man list of coaches being considered for the position, with Steve Jackson, Corniel van Zyl and Pieter de Villiers being the others.

Duncan has experience with the Kings having played two Currie Cup seasons with them before his retirement from playing.

Both the Warriors and the Kings open up their respective campaigns for the 2019/20 season in September and one would imagine they will want a quick resolution if he is to depart for South Africa once again.

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