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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.

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Pro14

Leinster Duo to Miss Start of Season

Leinster have confirmed that two players will miss the start of the upcoming season in what is a big blow for the province

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(Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Image)

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen has confirmed that both Ciaran Frawley and Barry Daly have suffered injuries in pre-season and will miss the start of the season.

Young fly-half Frawley impressed last season when given his chances, and with Johnny Sexton at the World Cup it was an opportunity for him and Ross Byrne to share the No 10 jersey. 

However, Cullen has confirmed that Frawley has suffered an ankle ligament injury during their win over the Northampton Saints last week and has undergone a procedure to fix the problem. The bad news is that he will be out of action for six to eight weeks. 

Along with Frawley, back Daly has picked up a knee ligament and cartilage injury during a training session. 

Like his teammate he has undergone a procedure to mend the issue, however, he is expected to be unavailable for selection for up to five months. 

With a number of key men on international duty with Ireland at the Rugby World Cup in Japan for the next two months the squad is already stretched and these will come as massive set-backs for Cullen and co. 

Leinster begin their PRO14 campaign on Sunday the 28th of September away to last season’s surprise package Benetton and they will hope to get off to a winning start as they attempt to claim their third league title on the bounce. 

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Pro14

Glasgow Warriors Sign Highlanders Prop

Glasgow Warriors have confirmed the arrival of an experienced Super Rugby loosehead

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(Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

Glasgow Warriors have announced the signing of Highlanders prop on a two-year contract ahead of the 2019/20 season.

The loosehead’s move is subject to visa and a medical with the club, which he is expected to pass, and he is excited to make the move to Scotstoun.

“I’m really looking forward to moving to Glasgow. It’s going to be a new challenge for me and I’m excited about the opportunity to play in Europe. The coaching team’s reputation speaks for itself – Dave is highly regarded and I can’t wait to work with him. I also know Siua from our time at the Highlanders, so I’m sure he’ll help me settle in. Glasgow Warriors have a very strong squad and made it to the Guinness PRO14 final last season, so I know I’ll have to get my head down and work hard to compete for my place in the team,” he said while speaking to glasgowwarriors.org.

Seiuli will bring a huge amount of experience to the Glasgow set-up having notched up 38 appearances for the Highlanders and featuring in the side that defeated the 2017 British & Irish Lions.

His shear power and size is something that head coach Dave Rennie is looking forward to having in his side and believes he will fit in well.

“Aki is a hell of an athlete. We identified him as someone with that point of difference around his ball carrying and physicality. He’s a good man and someone who we believe will fit in really well into our environment. He knows he’ll need to come over and work hard because we’re going to have a lot of competition in that loosehead spot this season,” he said.

The 26-year-old will be helped to settle in by former teammate Siua Halanukonuka whom he spent time with previously. If he does settle in quickly it will be a massive prospect for the Warriors fans ahead of the new season as they look to go one step further and win the PRO14 title as well as competing in the Champions Cup.

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Pro14

Owens retains Scarlets captaincy for new season

2019/2020 Season.

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With Owens set to play an integral part in WalesWorld Cup campaign outside centre Steffan Hughes and former Springboks prop Werner Kruger have been named as vice captains along with Wales squad members James Davies and his brother Jonathan.

The six consecutive seasons at the helm is a record for the Scarlets in the regional era and brings Owens alongside the great Phil Bennett, the Scarlets president, who captained Llanelli RFC between 1973 and 1979. “Ken is an outstanding leader,” said new Scarlets head coach Brad Mooar.

“I heard the other night Alun Wyn Jones refer to him as the heart of any team he is in, such high praise from a legend of the game and something that has been really clear to me from the time I have been involved in this Scarets journey. Ken’s heart beats Scarlets.

“I first met Ken about a year ago. He is held in such high regard, is such a genuine Scarlets person and an outstanding rugby player. Without exception, everybody I have spoken to – players, management, staff, the board – everyone speaks highly of Ken and his leadership abilities.

“He has played for and captained the British and Irish Lions, has been part of the leadership group for Wales. It is an absolute no-brainer that he is the right man to lead this team, club and its people.

“It is a World Cup year so we have got four vice-captains who are superb leaders in their own right, players who lead in different ways and contribute greatly to the group. That allows us to have a leadership group that is seamless throughout the year.

“With Cubby, Werner, Steff and Fox it is an awesome group to help Ken lead us. We had a launch here at Parc y Scarlets and their involvement and engagement has been outstanding.

“It is not just about the boys who are physically here now; Ken, Fox and Cubby’s connection and involvement with me, with the group and with the players, player to player, you can see that is there, as it has been with all the guys who have been involved with Wales.

“They are Scarlets at heart, they live and breathe it, and there is a huge amount of IP that will lead us throughout the season.”

Owens, who won his 67th cap for his country against Ireland last weekend, said: “It is a huge honour to be again named captain of my home region and, as I said when I was first appointed captain, a privilege to follow in the footsteps of some legends of the game who have led the Scarlets in the past.

“It is an exciting season ahead for the Scarlets and we have a strong leadership group to take us forward.”

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