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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.


Champions Cup

Leinster quartet nominated for 2023 EPCR Player of the Year Award

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Caelan Doris, Jamie Osborne, Garry Ringrose and Josh van der Flier have this morning been named in a 15-man shortlist for the 2023 EPCR Player of the Year Award.

After winning the Anthony Foley Memorial Trophy last year, van der Flier  has the opportunity to become the first player to successdully retain the title.

Doris had an excellent start ot the Heineken Champions Cup this season, winning Start of the Match honours, away to Racing 92 and at home to Gloucester.

Jamie Osborne had a standout performance in Kingsholm, where he was named Star of the Match in his first European start, as he also scored his first try in European competiton.

Ringrose earned Star of the Match honours against Racing 92 in Aviva Stadium, and has scored two tries in the pool stages.

Van der Flier scored a try in each of the four Pool matches, including a double in Le Havre against Racing, as he continues to impress in European competition.

Voting is now open HERE and fans will be in the running to win two VIP tickets with one night’s accommodation for the 2024 Heineken Champions Cup Final in May 2024.

At the conclusion of the semi-final matches in April, the list will be reduced to five players by a combination of the public vote and the verdict of the judges, and players who have not been included in the initial longlist, but who make a significant impact during the knockout stages of the Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup, may be considered for the shortlist.

The voting will then re-open and the winner of the 2023 award will be announced following the Heineken Champions Cup final at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday, 20 May.

2023 EPCR PLAYER OF THE YEAR NOMINEES
Grégory ALLDRITT (Stade Rochelais)
Gavin COOMBES (Munster Rugby)
Caelan DORIS (Leinster Rugby)
Elliot DALY (Saracens)
Antoine DUPONT (Stade Toulousain)
Eben ETZEBETH (Cell C Sharks)
Jaden HENDRIKSE (Cell C Sharks)
Siya KOLISI (Cell C Sharks)
Makazole MAPIMPI (Cell C Sharks)
Julien MARCHAND (Stade Toulousain)
Emmanuel MEAFOU (Stade Toulousain)
Jamie OSBORNE (Leinster Rugby)
Garry RINGROSE (Leinster Rugby)
Justin TIPURIC (Ospreys)
Josh VAN DER FLIER (Leinster Rugby)

Images & Content from Leinster Rugby


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Champions Cup

Contract Update & Addition For 2023/24

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Munster Rugby and the IRFU are pleased to confirm contract extensions for Niall Scannell and Rory Scannell with Edwin Edogbo signing his first senior contract and John Ryan returning to Munster next season.

Niall and Rory have both signed two-year contract extensions with Edwin set to continue as an Academy player next season before moving up to the senior squad ahead of the 2024/25 campaign on a two-year contract.

John will return to Munster for the 2023/24 season. The tighthead prop has joined the Chiefs in New Zealand for the upcoming Super Rugby Pacific season and will return to Munster on a one-year contract.

Niall Scannell

Niall Scannell captained Munster for the second time in last weekend’s win over Benetton and has made 155 appearances for the province since his debut in 2013, scoring 21 tries.

The 30-year-old hooker has earned 20 Ireland caps and appeared at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Rory Scannell.

Rory Scannell.

Centre Rory Scannell has made 171 appearances for Munster and became the youngest player to reach 100 Munster appearances at the age of just 25 in 2019.

He has earned three Ireland caps and is the only player to have won the Munster Academy and Young Player of the Year awards in the same year after winning both accolades in 2016.

Edwin Edogbo.

Edwin Edogbo.

Academy lock Edwin Edogbo has earned his first senior contract having made a big impression in his seven Munster appearances so far this season.

Edwin came up through the ranks at Cobh Pirates and is the first player from the club to play for Munster in the professional era.

The 20-year-old plays his AIL rugby with UCC and is currently sidelined with an ankle injury.

John Ryan.

John Ryan is one of only 13 players to have made over 200 appearances for Munster with the tighthead prop playing 205 games for the province to date.

The 34-year-old made his 50th Champions Cup appearance for the province in December and has also earned 24 Ireland caps, featuring at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Images & Content from Munster Rugby


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URC

DHL Stormers named Team of the Year

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The DHL Stormers were named Team of the Year and Head Coach John Dobson the Coach of the Year in SA Rugby’s annual awards.

The DHL Stormers, who won the inaugural Vodacom United Rugby Championship and went unbeaten at DHL Stadium in 2022, were voted as the Team of the Year, with John Dobson duly taking the award for Coach of the Year (Evan Roos was named Vodacom URC Player of the Season last year June).

Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, who led the SA Under-20s to a clean sweep of four wins in the Six Nations U20 Summer Series in Italy, was named Junior Springbok Player of the Year, edging out team-mates Suleiman Hartzenberg and Ruan Venter.

Springbok centurion Eben Etzebeth was named the SA Rugby Player of the Year for the first time after narrowly losing out to Springbok captain Siya Kolisi in 2021, but last season the towering lock was a constant star in the green and gold, along with fellow nominees for the top award in Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Frans Malherbe.

Canaan Moodie, who celebrated his Springbok debut last year with a superb try against Australia in Sydney while still an Under-20, was voted as the Young Player of the Year. He was nominated ahead of Feinberg-Mngomezulu, Jaden Hendrikse, Evan Roos and Henco van Wyk, underlining the rich vein of talent coming through in South Africa.

Nadine Roos highlighted her versatility in 2022 as she shone for both the national XVs and sevens teams in two Rugby World Cup tournaments, and she was rewarded for her brilliant form by being included in the World Rugby Dream Team after the RWC Sevens in Cape Town in September.

The other nominees were 2021 winner, Lusanda Dumke (flank), as well as No 8 Aseza Hele, who won the award in 2019, as well as midfield stars Zintle Mpupha and Aphiwe Ngwevu.

Hard-working forward JC Pretorius won the award for Springbok Sevens Player of the Year during a season in which the Blitzboks won four tournaments and just missed out on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series title. The other nominees were Selvyn Davids and Zain Davids.

The Airlink Pumas’ triumph in the Carling Currie Cup was reflected in the award for Premier Division Player of the Year, which was won by Sebastian de Klerk, who scored eight tries from outside centre during the season as the Lowvelders won the title from fourth spot on the log. He edged out provincial team-mates Willie Engelbrecht and Devon Williams for the title.

The award for Carling Currie Cup First Division Player of the Year was won by Down Touch Griffons scrumhalf Jaywinn Juries, who contributed a massive 169 points to the Northern Free Staters’ cause during the season which saw them not only win the competition, but also earn promotion to the Premier Division at the end of the season.

Dumke, who led the Border Ladies to a second successive Women’s Premier Division title, won the award for Provincial Women’s Player of the Year.

The OUTsurance Referee of the Year, for a second successive season, is Aimee Barrett-Theron, who represented South Africa at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Barrett-Theron also made her debut in the Vodacom URC, establishing her as one of the foremost women’s referees in the world.

Mr Mark Alexander, President of SA Rugby, congratulated the winners and applauded their achievements during a busy 2022 season.

“Eben has been a Springbok stalwart for more than a decade and it’s just amazing to see how he keeps getting better with age, playing with maturity and providing valuable leadership to the Springboks,” said Mr Alexander.

“The Boks are building on depth and experience with an eye on the Rugby World Cup later this year, and I think they are in a good space under the coaching of Jacques Nienaber and the captaincy of Siya, but Eben’s role can’t be underestimated as he is not only the most experienced member of the squad, but he also sets the example for younger players and was widely regarded as one of the best players on the planet last year.

“Looking at the quality of young talent coming through, Canan was deservedly voted as the Young Player of the Year, but the other names of the list of nominees are all expected to still make a major mark on South African rugby, which bodes very well for the future.

“The winners in the other categories for our national teams, Nadine, JC and Sacha, all deserve these accolades after superb performances during the season. Starring in XVs and sevens takes some doing and Nadine never missed a beat; JC was a constant star for the Blitzboks; and Sacha is another one of the upcoming crop of future stars.

“I would also like to congratulate John and the DHL Stormers on their magnificent achievement in winning the Vodacom URC, as well as Sebastian, Jaywinn and Lusanda for leading the way in our very tough provincial competitions.

“The new year is already in full swing, but there is still a lot of rugby to be played and all eyes will be on France in September and October when the Boks defend the Webb Ellis Cup. I would like to congratulate every winner on their awards and wish them well for the next year, but I would also like to thank all the players, young and old, their coaches and team management, match officials, administrators, all our loyal sponsors and all other role players for making 2022 a season to remember.”

The winners and finalists (where applicable) for 2022 are:

SA Rugby Player of the Year: Eben Etzebeth
Finalists: Lukhanyo Am, Kurt-Lee Arendse, Siya Kolisi, Frans Malherbe

SA Rugby Young Player of the Year: Canan Moodie (Springboks / Vodacom Bulls)
Finalists: Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu (Junior Springboks / South Africa ‘A’ / DHL Stormers), Jaden Hendrikse (Springboks / Cell C Sharks), Evan Roos (Springboks / DHL Stormers), Henco van Wyk (South Africa ‘A’ / Emirates Lions)

Springbok Women’s Player of the Year: Nadine Roos
Finalists: Lusanda Dumke, Aseza Hele, Zintle Mpupha, Aphiwe Ngwevu

Springbok Sevens Player of the Year: JC Pretorius
Finalists: Selvyn Davids, Zain Davids

Junior Springbok Player of the Year: Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu
Finalists: Suleiman Hartzenberg, Ruan Venter

Team of the Year: DHL Stormers
Finalists: Airlink Pumas, Springboks

Coach of the Year: John Dobson (DHL Stormers)
Finalists: Jacques Nienaber (Springboks), Jimmy Stonehouse (Airlink Pumas)

Carling Currie Cup Premier Division Player of the Year: Sebastian de Klerk (Airlink Pumas)
Finalists: Willie Engelbrecht (Airlink Pumas), Devon Williams (Airlink Pumas)

Carling Currie Cup First Division Player of the Year: Jaywinn Juries (Down Touch Griffons)
Finalists: Jaiden Baron (Boland Kavaliers), Duan Pretorius (Down Touch Griffons)

Provincial Women’s Player of the Year: Lusanda Dumke (Border Ladies)

OUTsurance Referee of the Year: Aimee Barrett-Theron

Vodacom United Rugby Championship Player of the Season (announced last year): Evan Roos (DHL Stormers)
Finalists: Lukhanyo Am (Cell C Sharks), Marcell Coetzee (Vodacom Bulls), Warrick Gelant (DHL Stormers), Ruan Nortje (Vodacom Bulls), Vincent Tshituka

Content & Images from – Stormers Rugby


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