Ulster got their Guinness PRO14 campaign underway on Friday evening against the Ospreys in Belfast. Ulster gave new summer singings, Sam Carter, Matt Faddes and Jack McGrath their debuts but were forced into a late change with Jordi Murphy being withdrawn just before kick-off as a precaution for Jack Conan who has picked up a foot injury in Japan. Greg Jones came into the side starting at 8 with Clive Ross taking his spot on the bench.
Ospreys got the first points of the evening after an Ulster infringement allowed Luke Price to have an easy shot at goal. It wasn’t long until they were back on the scoreboard after a great try from Ospreys Full-Back Dan Evans. A quick snap from Aubrey to Price caught the Ulster inside defence out with Dan Evans running a great inside line bursting through the line untouched, still with a lot to do Evans feinted inside turning Lyttle’s shoulders before taking the outside, Lyttle caught Evans just shy of the line but the Ospreys veteran just did enough to touch down for the unconverted try.
Ulster were offered their first points of the evening after the Ospreys gave away a breakdown penalty following a strong carry and off-load from James Hume. Cooney pushed his attempt wide of the right post leaving the Ospreys ahead on the scoreboard by 8.
Ulster shortly made their way back into the Ospreys 22 with an attacking line-out providing a good platform for the Ulster backline to launch from. With the Ulster pack rumbling forward, the ball came loose but was fed to Ulster Out-Half who dinked the ball wide with a flat cross-field kick that was gathered after one bounce by returning winger Craig Gilroy. Cooney after missing a relatively simple penalty only minutes earlier made it a 7-pointer with the ball clearing the bar via the left upright narrowing the Ospreys lead to just 1 point. 7-8.
With it being the first game of the season, handling errors were plentiful for both sides but Ulster certainly looked the more dangerous when in possession. Billie Burns successfully found Rob Lyttle with another beautiful dinked cross-field. Lyttle showed great strength and pace but perhaps had the option to feed new signing Matt Faddes with a simple 2 v 1 but opted to go himself only to be hauled down short of the line. Cooney had a dart from close range but was held up. Thankfully for Ulster, Ospreys winger Luke Morgan was off-side, yellow carded and the Ulster pack were given another bash at the try line off a driving maul. After several phases, Greg Jones got across the line for a converted try with Ulster taking a 14-11 lead.
Ospreys lost lock, James king to injury just prior to half time, Baker replaced him making his first competitive appearance in almost 2 years following a horror injury. 2 penalties in quick succession from Ulster gave the Ospreys territory and a chance to draw level. Luke Price again converting.
On the stroke of half-time Ulster regained the lead. John Cooney could easily have been judged to have played the Ospreys 9 but the ref waved play-on and a strong Ulster counter attack that included another strong carry from James Hume followed by a quick pick from Rob Lyttle saw Ulster stretch the Ospreys defence. Quick ball allowed the ball to come wide to Craig Gilroy who turned from scorer to provider with a skip pass to Matt Faddes who finished well in the corner on debut. Cooney nailed the touchline conversion to send Ulster in at half-time 21-14 up.
HT – Ulster 21 – 14 Ospreys.
The 2nd-half started off a little duller than the first, literally, with one set of floodlights failing. Cooney was on-hand shortly into the 2nd-half to extend the Ulster lead with another penalty and it wasn’t long until Ulster secured their bonus point.
Faddes and Lyttle linked up well on several occasions before Burns was given another opportunity to drop it onto the foot for another cross-field for Gilroy. This time he collected it on the full, scoring the bonus point try under the posts giving Cooney an easy conversion.
With the bonus point in the bag, Burns was withdrawn with the lively Michael Lowry coming on at Out-Half. Ulster continued to pin back the Ospreys with Lowry and Faddes putting the pull in behind the Ospreys defence on several occasions.
Ulster continued to dominate possession and territory throughout the second half but it wasn’t until the 70th minute before the scoreboard was moved again. Debutant Faddes picked up a loose kick and glided through the Osprey defence linking up again with the dangerous Lyttle. He chipped over the remaining defenders and as he was about to stretch out to touch down the bouncing ball, Ospreys winger, Morgan was adjudged to have played him without the ball by the TMO. Controversially Ulster were awarded a penalty try and Morgan was given his second yellow card of the game.
Ospreys finished the game by finally playing some rugby in the Ulster 22. After several phases they eventually got across the try line but after a TMO review it was adjudged that the line breaking pass was forward.
FT – Ulster 38 – 14 Ospreys.
A very positive opening performance from Ulster to kick off their season. New signings Carter, McGrath and Faddes all impressed, especially Faddes who combined well with Rob Lyttle on several occasions. Ulster fans will also be glad to see Craig Gilroy return to action after a long spell on the sidelines. Other impressive performances came from young centre, James Hume who looked dangerous in attack with several strong carries. Mike Lowry looked a threat every time he touched the ball and Sean Reidy put in a huge shift with 16 tackles. Rob Lyttle got special praise from Ulster Head coach Dan McFarland in the post-match press conference, not just for his continual attacking threat but also for his defensive display and his fight and willingness to keep the ball alive.
Man of the Match was awarded to Billie Burns. Despite only playing 50 minutes he had a huge influence in the game with 3 pinpoint cross-field kicks, 2 of which directly resulted in tries and another which ultimately led to a try being scored just a few phases later. He spoke with Premier Sports post-game.
Ulster head to South Africa on Tuesday for their next round of PRO14 Fixtures where they will face the Cheetahs and Southern Kings. McFarland is planning on taking a 28-man squad to South Africa which could include Springbok Marcel Coetzee who is on track to make a faster than expected return from injury. Coetzee suffered a syndesmosis injury and had surgery just 5 weeks ago but is hoping to be back in action within the next 2-3 weeks. Stuart McCloskey has picked up a ‘lower limb’ injury and will be doubtful to make the trip.
Former Welsh Ace to Hang Up Boots
One of Wales’ former stars has confirmed that he will retire from rugby come the end of the current season
Former Wales back James Hook has announced that he will be calling time on his professional rugby career come the end of the current season.
Hook is contracted to the Ospreys, but with his deal set to end at the end of the campaign he has decided the time has come to pull the curtain on a professional career spanning 16 years.
“It’s sad but something I’m really looking forward to. It comes to everyone at some point and now it’s time for me. I’ve had lots of highlights, winning Grand Slam titles and Six Nations and going on the Lions tour in 2009. Then signing my first professional contract was a big moment for me. Growing up I always aspired to be a professional rugby player. You never think it’ll actually happen so when it did it really was amazing,” he said in a post on social media.
The 34-year old picked up a total of 81-caps for Wales to go along with his 148 appearances for the Ospreys.
Hook has admitted he hopes to continue his rugby journey off the pitch, but that he is also looking forward to having more time to spend with his family after such a long time on the playing field.
“I want to stay involved in the game, particularly working on the skills, like I do now with the young kickers and the age-grade sides, and I’m hoping to finish my level three coaching qualification. It’ll be nice to spend time with my family, my three young boys and my wife. It’s going to be sad not playing at the end of the season, but you’ve got to be positive and look on the bright side and I’m looking forward to what’s next,” he added.
As well as his rugby career Hook has also written a series of children’s books that are set to be released later this year and that could provide him with something else to venture into if they are successful.
However, for now he will be hoping that he can help the Ospreys turn around their disastrous season to date before he hangs his boots up for good.
Connacht Set to Lose Big Star
Connacht look set to without one of their key men next season according to reports as he appears set for a move
They are reporting that the former Rebels man is the Top 14 side’s preferred replacement for the departing Liam Gill, who will leave at the end of this season.
Connacht were keen to keep their players’ player of the year from last season and had entered contract talks to extend his deal past the original two years, but with talks stalling Lyon have come in with a reported offer of 300,000 euro a season which would be hard to refuse.
The 28-year-old would be a huge loss to the western province having been such a massive influence since his arrival in 2018.
However, more positive news for fans is that the back-rower is set to return from a knee injury this weekend against Toulouse, to help Connacht during a period where injuries have severely hampered them.
It is understood that Connacht would like to replace Fainga’a with another overseas star, but for now they will hope to get the most out of the Aussie between now and the end of the season.
Carbery Confirms Feelings on Latest Set-Back
Joey Carbery was ruled out for the foreseeable future yesterday and the injury prone star has taken to social media to reach out to his fans
Carbery, who had an injury-hit 2019, suffering hamstring injuries that kept him out of large parts of the end of last season, before picking up an ankle injury before Ireland’s Rugby World Cup campaign, suffered a wrist ligament injury during last weekend’s loss to Ulster and will now likely miss the start of Ireland’s Six Nations campaign.
The fly-half took to social media after the news broke to thank fans for their support during a tough time in his career.
“Devastation doesn’t even describe how I’m feeling. Thanks for all the well wishes. Been a tough couple of months physically and mentally, and thought I was in the clear. But will be back soon, better than ever,” he said on Instagram.
It was announced by Munster that the Ireland star will undergo surgery on the injury and he appears set to miss their last two Champions Cup Pool stage matches along with the games with the national team.
It is a cruel blow for Carbery, who looked to be in line for a starting role for Ireland in the first couple of rounds of the Six Nations with first-choice fly-half Johnny Sexton also currently sidelined with injury.
Leinster’s Ross Byrne now appears set to be handed the reins at No 10 for the men in green and if he takes his chance Carbery could find it even harder to get back into the team.
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