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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.


URC

Glasgow destroy Cardiff with 8 try victory

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Eight tries and a half-century of points saw Glasgow Warriors open their BKT United Rugby Championship account in style, earning a 52-24 victory over Cardiff at Scotstoun this evening.

Player of the Match George Horne grabbed 17 points, with a brace from Fraser Brown, a try apiece from Zander and Matt Fagerson and scores from Cole Forbes, Thomas Gordon and Stafford McDowall accounting for the scoreline.

Straight from the opening kick-off, it was evident that this was a Glasgow Warriors team with one objective in mind. An industrious opening spell from Scott Cummings saw the second-rower heavily involved at the set-piece and in the loose, whilst the speed of thought and foot from Horne kept the Cardiff defence on their toes.

However, it would be the visitors who would open the scoring with a quarter of an hour on the clock, somewhat against the run of play. After a lengthy stoppage due to an ankle injury to Rory Darge that saw the flanker head to hospital for treatment, the Welshmen caught their hosts cold. Max Llewellyn’s break through the middle took Cardiff into the Glasgow 22, before a looping pass from Jarrod Evans put Josh Adams over in the corner. Evans added the conversion, and Cardiff led 7-0.

Glasgow’s response was immediate, and showcased what was to come from Franco Smith’s men. A superb offload from Tom Jordan put Cole Forbes through a gap, who in turn sent Sebastian Cancelliere racing clear. Only an illegal intervention from Thomas Young could prevent the Warriors from scoring, earning the openside a yellow card from referee Chris Busby.

It took the Warriors precisely 45 seconds to make the most of their numerical advantage, and they did it in textbook fashion. Fraser Brown’s lineout was pinpoint accurate to Cummings, before Brown himself burrowed over the line from the rolling maul. Horne converted, and the scores were tied.

Straight from the restart, Smith’s men struck for what could already be a try of the season contender. Identifying the space, Stafford McDowall sent Sione Tuipulotu through a gap, who in turn timed his pass to perfection to send Cancelliere sprinting clear. The Argentinian drew the last man before popping the ball to Forbes, with the full-back outpacing the cover defence to touch down. Horne’s conversion attempt was true, and the Warrior Nation were in full voice.

The noise continued to grow moments later, as the home side crossed for their third try in a nine-minute spell. A superbly executed 50-22 from Tuipulotu gave the Warriors field position, before Zander Fagerson was stopped just inches short of the line. It was left to younger brother Matt to apply the finishing touch, picking up and going down the blindside to barge over the whitewash. A third conversion from Horne took the score to 21-7 after half an hour, and Scotstoun was rocking.

Even a yellow card to Tom Jordan on his first home start couldn’t puncture the home side’s momentum, as Cummings and Kyle Steyn combined to drive the visitors fully 20 metres backwards in a superb defensive shift.

A penalty from Evans was all that Cardiff could muster during the sin bin period, and it would be Glasgow that would finish the half on the front foot. A half-break from Dempsey and a perfectly-timed offload to Horne sent the scrum-half scampering clear, chipping ahead to pin Cardiff on their own try-line. Cummings’ chargedown forced a five-metre scrum in his side’s favour, and after Tuipulotu and Richie Gray went close, Horne himself would snipe over for the classic scrum-half score. Converting his own try for good measure, the Warriors headed back to the changing rooms with a 28-10 lead at the interval.

Content & Images from – Glasgow Warriors Rugby


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Failure to deal with sin-binning periods cost us – Young

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Dai Young says Cardiff were made to pay for their failure to deal with sin-binning periods after suffering a 52-24 defeat to Glasgow Warriors on Friday.

The hosts scored four of their eight tries while the Blue and Blacks were reduced to 14 men, with Thomas Young and Uilisi Halaholo both spending 10 minutes each in the sin bin.

 

After a bright start in Scotstoun, where Cardiff took the lead courtesy of a Josh Adams try, the momentum of the game shifted following Young’s sin-binning, leading to a trio of quickfire scores from the hosts.

 

The Director of Rugby was disappointed with how the yellow cards allowed Glasgow to take control of the encounter, and says it’s vitally important that his side learn the lessons from the defeat.

 

Young said: “It’s disappointing obviously and the scoreboard is quite ugly when you look at it at the end.

 

“But I thought we had a really good start. We got our noses in front and we were right in the game.

 

“Then we had a pretty harsh yellow card against Thomas [Young], but that happens on occasions.

 

“We certainly didn’t control that 10 minutes the way we wanted to. They scored three tries and 21 points in that period which obviously meant we’d be chasing the game a little bit.

 

“Another yellow card in the second half, and they scored another try so that’s four tries following yellow cards.

 

“That’s a big thing that we need to get better at – controlling those periods when we’re down to 14. It will inevitably happen in this game.

 

“I thought a couple of calls went against us but as the game went on we also controlled the collisions poorly. They started again on top, winning collisions, and once that starts to happen then they’ll get speed of ball and it becomes very hard for us to control them defensively.

 

“We played good stuff on occasions and left points out there but we’re obviously disappointed to lose by that much.

 

“We’ve got to learn a lot from it, but ultimately the story of the day was the yellow cards and how we dealt with those periods because they will happen. It doesn’t matter how you play the game, there will be yellow cards.”

 

Following tries from Adams, Kristian Dacey and Liam Belcher, Cardiff’s hopes of leaving Glasgow with a bonus point were alive in the final 10 minutes, but ultimately left empty handed.

 

Young called for more composure in the final stages and insists his side must continue to work hard on the training ground as they seek improvements.

 

The former Wales prop added: “We had opportunities for the bonus point but we were rushing it. We had 10 minutes to score a try but were flapping at it a little bit.

 

“As I said, we’ve got to try and take the positives out of tonight. The scoreboard is ugly, nobody wants to see that, but there were positives, things we can improve on and things we can do better.

 

“When we get opportunities we’ve got to be more clinical and got to keep working on our physicality, which is something we knew coming into the season.

 

“It’s something we struggled with on occasions last season against the better teams, and did win it from parts of the game today, but by the second half we started to lose more and more collisions which meant they controlled the speed of ball.

 

“They’re too good of a team to be given quick ball.

 

“You’ll win rugby games and you’ll lose some. We’re not happy with tonight’s performance but what we’ve got to look at is trying to improve every week.

 

“We will come up against good teams, and tonight that was nigh-on an international team we played against. You don’t get much tougher than that.

 

“We need to take the positive, build on them and try to take the negatives out of our game.

 

“Next week is another game where we’re at home. We want to keep building.

 

“This season is going to go where we’ll win some games and lose some games but our focus can’t change.

 

“Our focus has to be to build on the things we do well and keep working on things that don’t go well. Hopefully, by doing that, we’ll win more than we lose.”

Content & Images from – Cardiff Rugby


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Roos ready to tear it up

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DHL Stormers coach John Dobson is picking his No 8 Evan Roos to make a statement in the defending champions’ Vodacom United Rugby Championship opener against Connacht in Stellenbosch on Saturday.

Kick-off is 14h30 at the Danie Craven Stadium and tickets are available from Webtickets. CLICK HERE to buy your tickets now.

“Evan is chomping to get going. He had an incredible 2021/22 season, which resulted in Springboks Test selection and I know he is amped to put in a performance to make a statement that he will be even better this season,” said Dobson.

“He got a taste of international rugby. He wants more and he knows that the Vodacom URC is his stage to make his on-field statements, individually and most pertinently to the collectiver of the DHL Stormers,” Dobson added.

Roos was the posterboy for the inaugural Vodacom URC, his rampaging carries and dynamic support play dominating the league’s weekly highlights.

A Paarl Boys High prodigy, Roos left Cape Town for the Cell C Sharks after matriculating but was back in Cape Town in 2020.

His skill-set meshed perfectly with the DHL Stormers script and he flourished in a team of gamebreakers.

Partnered with speedster Hacjivah Dayimani and breakdown specialist Deon Fourie, Roos starred in a tenacious back row that pressured rivals in attack and defence, combining skill with speed and a high work rate.

The DHL Stormers recovered from a slow start to win 12 of 18 league matches, scalping Edinburgh, Ulster and the Vodacom Bulls in the playoffs to cap an 11-match win streak with an 18-13 victory in the Cape Town Grand Final.

Roos led the charge and the 22-year-old was rewarded when it came time to dish out league accolades, named the Vodacom United Rugby Championship Player of the Season, Players’ Player of the Season, Fans’ Player of the Season, Next-Gen Player of the Season and he earned a place in the Vodacom URC Dream Team.

In winning Player of the Season, Roos beat off challenges from Vodacom Bulls captain Marcell Coetzee and his teammate Ruan Nortje, Lukhanyo Am (Cell C Sharks), Vincent Tshituka (Emirates Lions) and Warrick Gelant, another key member of the DHL Stormers’ championship-winning side.

This was just reward for a player who topped the competition statistics for offloads, carries made and tackles broken, while finishing fourth for metres gained, the highest-placed forward.

He also made a lasting impression when he scored a remarkable try in the final, surging headlong through some of the meatiest Vodacom Bulls to score.

The explosive No.8 will be central to the defending champions’ quest to repeat. A pillar of strength up front, Roos combines traditional South African aggression with levels of athleticism more common to a pack from one of the Pacific Island nations. He is a unique talent, rapid and gruff.

While these traits elevated Roos into the national team, the ambitious No.8 will not be content with his first and only Test cap to date – a 46-minute cameo in a Springbok home loss against Wales in July.

For the DHL Stormers faithful, Roos is not only the perfect option at the back of the scrum and line-out, but also the man to power up the Bok pack at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Roos will get his legs churning on Saturday to convert the few who may still doubt his world-class qualities.

Content & Images from – Stormers Rugby


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