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Ulster announce batch of new contract extensions

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Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Two of Ulster’s most exciting and dynamic wing talents have today pledged their futures to the province alongside the experienced heads of Ireland cap, Luke Marshall, and lock, Alan O’Connor.

Winger, Baloucoune, has continually impressed with his agile performances for the Ulster men which have already earned him a call-up to the Ireland development squad since his debut in October 2018 against Dragons. 

With a return from injury on the horizon, it’s not long before fans will once again be able witness the familiar sight of the Enniskillen native’s charge for the try line. Of his two-year extension, Baloucoune, said:

“I’m excited to be part of this Ulster team, and what we can strive to achieve for in the near future. I’d like to thank the coaching staff and physios who have helped me through my long-term injury this season and I can’t wait to be back playing again.”

Ulster Rugby Head Coach, Dan McFarland, said:

“Rob has been in sensational form for us and has proven himself to be a prolific try-scorer as well as a superb defender. He’s been unlucky with injury this season, but he is not far off making his return which we’re all looking forward to.”

Ballymena-born, Luke Marshall, who has made 144 appearances for Ulster to date, is also set to remain at Kingspan Stadium until at least June 2023. The centre who is known as a combative, strong-running midfielder, has consistently performed for the province since joining the Ulster Academy in 2009. On the announcement of his extension, Marshall, said:

“I am happy to be staying on with Ulster as I feel we are building towards something special – especially with such an exciting young squad. It is a privilege to continue to represent my home province – and since my wife gave birth to our son three months ago, I am hopeful that he will be able to come and watch me play at Kingspan Stadium in the next couple of years.”

McFarland added: “Luke is one of our longest-serving players and brings an excellent ability to read the game and organise defences. I’m delighted that he’s committed to Ulster for a further two seasons, and we look forward to also seeing him back from injury soon.”

Lock, Alan O’Connor, is known both on and off the pitch for his leadership abilities with the 28-year-old recently captaining the province in the landmark win over Connacht at the Sportsground in December. Speaking of his contract renewal, O’Connor, said: 

“I’m delighted to have signed on with Ulster for another two years. I’m really looking forward to continuing this journey with a great group of lads – it’s been a great experience so far. We, as a team, have grown so much over the last couple of years and we will keep growing and improving – to be part of that is very exciting.”

McFarland added: “Al has been a vital member of our squad for some time now. He is a player who epitomises the competitiveness and bite we expect at Ulster. It is because of this he has earned the honour of captaining the team on many occasions.”

Completing today’s announcements is 20-year-old Aaron Sexton who, since entering the Ulster Academy system in the summer of 2019, has already made his mark – most recently through his involvement in the win against the Leinster ‘A’ side, which saw Sexton contribute two match-defining tries. 

The young player from Bangor will spend one year as a Development player, before being upgraded to a Senior Professional contract for the following season. Of the news, Sexton, said:

“It means a lot to me reaching this next step in my career, and I can’t thank everyone enough who helped get me to where I am. I’m really looking forward to working hard in the months ahead having had my first taste of senior rugby this year.” 

On the last of the signings to be announced today, Dan McFarland, said: “Aaron has put in some really encouraging performances for Ulster in recent Inter-provincial ‘A’ games and IRFU Academy Sevens tournaments by demonstrating his next level speed and try-scoring ability. He earned himself an opportunity at senior level against Edinburgh, which we hope is the first of many senior appearances for Aaron in the future.”

Champions Cup

Graham Rowntree Confirmed As Next Munster Head Coach

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(Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Munster Rugby and the IRFU are pleased to confirm that Graham Rowntree will be promoted from Forwards Coach to the role of Head Coach from July 1, 2022.

Rowntree will commence the role of Head Coach at the start of the 2022/23 season after signing a two-year deal.

The former England prop made the move to Limerick in October 2019 on completion of his Rugby World Cup coaching duties with Georgia Rugby.

In his third season as Forwards Coach Graham and family have settled well into Limerick life, noting earlier this year, “I have made my thoughts about this club widely known throughout my time so far, and for me and my family it really has been an easy decision, a non-decision if truth be told.

“We’ve put down roots here and have no desire to move anywhere else.”

With an impressive coaching CV and vast experience, Rowntree previously held coaching roles with the British and Irish Lions, England Rugby, Harlequins and Leicester Tigers.

Working closely with the IRFU, the province will advance with next steps in securing the backroom team that will work with Graham from next season as Head Coach Johann van Graan, Senior Coach Stephen Larkham, and Defence Coach JP Ferreira depart the province at the end of June.

IRFU Performance Director, David Nucifora, commented, “I would like to thank the Munster Professional Game Committee for their work and diligence during this process.

“It is important that Munster have someone who understands the unique history and culture of the club and has the experience to maximise the talent in the squad.

“Graham was very impressive throughout this process and demonstrated he has the capabilities to spearhead the next chapter of Munster Rugby.”

On confirmation of the promotion, Graham Rowntree added, “I am hugely honoured to be taking over the role of Head Coach for a club of this calibre, one that means so much to me and my family.

“We have thoroughly enjoyed every moment here and I fortunately get to work with an incredible group of staff and players who share a common goal each day in striving for success for this club.

“I’ve talked about our fantastic supporters before and again at the weekend we stepped off the bus to a huge red welcome in Exeter. Who doesn’t want to be part of that, that’s special!

“I believe we have the established structures in place with the resources and facilities to match and that it will be a smooth transition for the coaching ticket we assemble in ensuring continued development and success for this club.

“Before then I have a role to complete this season and working closely with Johann, Steve, and JP is the immediate focus and priority for now.”

Commenting on the appointment, Munster Rugby CEO Ian Flanagan said, “Graham’s extensive coaching experience and knowledge for the game makes him the perfect candidate to lead this squad forward.

“With Graham stepping up at the start of the new season it will be a seamless and natural progression from the work that has been carried out to-date.

“For now, we will continue our focus on the remainder of this season with Graham supporting Johann and the coaching staff in achieving our goals.”

Munster Rugby Home Fixtures

Saturday, April 16

Champions Cup Round of 16: Munster v Exeter Chiefs, Thomond Park, 3pm; Buy tickets here

Friday, April 29

URC: Munster v Cardiff Rugby, Musgrave Park, 7.35pm; Buy tickets here

Images & Content from Munster Rugby

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6 Nations

Sean O’Brien to retire from rugby

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Image Credit: London Irish

London Irish can confirm Seán O’Brien is set to retire from rugby at the end of the 2021/22 season.

The back-row forward will bring a storied 14-year career to a conclusion this summer after two-and-a-half years with the Exiles.

O’Brien spent eleven seasons with his home province of Leinster, winning four Pro12/ Pro14 league titles, four Heineken Cup/ Champions Cup honours and an Amlin Challenge Cup, whilst also earning the ERC European Player of the Year accolade in 2011. 

He was capped 56 times for Ireland between 2009 and 2019 and represented the British and Irish Lions on two tours, firstly to Australia in 2013 and then to New Zealand in 2017. 

O’Brien joined London Irish in December 2019 and has played a vital part across three successful seasons in west London, becoming a fan favourite amongst the Exile Nation. 

On his decision to retire, O’Brien stated: “After much deliberation and consultation with my family and friends, I can confirm that I have decided to retire from playing professional rugby at the end of the season.

“I’ve had an incredible career and am thankful for every second of my time at Leinster, Ireland, London Irish and the British & Irish Lions. 

“As a 20-year-old, I fulfilled my childhood dream by pulling on the Leinster jersey, and when I made my debut against Cardiff Blues in 2008, I never imagined what would then follow over the next 14 years. 

“A special mention must go to Colin McEntee for his ‘big brother’ approach when I joined the academy. 

“I feel lucky to have experienced so many wonderful highlights over the course of my career.

“At an international level, I feel privileged to have won 56 caps for Ireland. 

“I gave everything I could possibly give, and I will always look back with great pride at every time I pulled on the Irish jersey to represent my country, my county, my friends, and family.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the career I’ve had but none of it would have been possible without the support of so many people.

“Firstly, I would like to thank my Mam and Dad for taking me to Ballon Rathoe Community Games and then Tullow RFC when I was 8 years old. 

“They took me to every sport in my area which gave me the exposure to all types of sport. 

“They were the perfect role models who taught me to not be afraid of hard work, which certainly helped me progress my career and I can’t thank them enough.

“I was lucky to play alongside some great players and under some brilliant managers and coaches during my time at Tullow, Leinster, Ireland, London Irish and the Lions and I would like to thank every one of them. 

“I would also like to thank the backroom staff at each of those clubs, they all showed me fantastic support during my time with them.

“I would like to say a special thank you to some people who believed in me early on in my career, who are sadly no longer with us. 

“Jim Kealy (Tullow RFC) and David Wilkie (Edenderry RFC) always said the right thing to me and gave me direction when needed.

“Away from rugby, I feel lucky to have had such a close group of friends that I have always been able to count and rely on throughout the course of my career. 

“Thanks to all of you, especially James Foley and Daniel Davey. 

“Finally, the most important thank you is reserved for my family. 

“I can’t thank my Mum, Dad and brothers (Stephen and William) sisters (Caroline and Alex) enough for their unconditional support over the years. 

“It has meant everything to me and to have 6 nephews watching means the world to me.

“There is still a lot of rugby to be played this season before the time comes to hang up my boots, and I am fully focused on giving my all in the London Irish jersey until then. 

“I’m going to soak up every minute I get on the pitch and look forward to helping the team wherever I can.

“I am excited about the future and feel I still have a lot to offer the game, in whatever capacity that may be. 

“I am currently taking my time to consider a number of options and will make an announcement with regards to the next stage of my career very soon.”

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URC

Ulster squad selected for Vodacom Bulls clash

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Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images

The Ulster match-day squad to face Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on Saturday afternoon has been named.

Andrew Warwick will make his 150th appearance for the province as he has been named to start at loosehead prop and will be joined in the front row by Brad Roberts and Marty Moore. Iain Henderson comes into skipper the side at second row, and will partner fellow Irish international, Kieran Treadwell. Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney come in to start at blindside and openside flanker, with Duane Vermeulen at the base of the scrum at Number Eight.

Mike Lowry is selected to start at full-back, with Ben Moxham and Ethan McIlroy named on the wings. Luke Marshall and James Hume will form the centre partnership while Ian Madigan and Nathan Doak make up the half-back pairing.

The Ulster coaching team has opted for a 6-2 split on the bench, with Tom Stewart, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Mick Kearney, Matty Rea and Marcus Rea selected as forward reinforcements. John Cooney and Stewart Moore provide the back line cover.

Ulster team to play Vodacom Bulls, United Rugby Championship Round 14, Saturday 2 April at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, 1pm kick-off (UK / IRE time), live on SuperSport, Premier Sports & URC TV:

(15-9) Mike Lowry, Ben Moxham, James Hume, Luke Marshall, Ethan McIlroy, Ian Madigan, Nathan Doak;

(1-8) Andrew Warwick, Brad Roberts, Marty Moore, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (Capt.), Jordi Murphy, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: Tom Stewart, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Mick Kearney, Matty Rea, John Cooney, Marcus Rea, Stewart Moore.  

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