Schmidt Watch

Analysis: World Cup contenders shine as Ulster's Pro12 form grows

We dissect the performances of some of Ulster’s key men during the win over Leinster.

ULSTER APPEAR TO be hitting form at exactly the right time in their push for a Guinness Pro12 title.

Neil Doak’s men have won their last three games following defeat away to the Dragons in March and their performances have been impressive.

Paddy Jackson is tackled by Isaac Boss Paddy Jackson cuts through the Leinster defence last weekend. Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO Presseye / Darren Kidd/INPHO / Darren Kidd/INPHO

A home final on 30 May is the prospect driving the northern province, who are currently preparing to welcome Munster to Kingspan Stadium in two weekends’ time. A win in that game would move Ulster into second position in the table, a home semi-final beckoning.

The Ulstermen have lost just once in the league since 3 January and part of the reason for their strong run is the form of some of their key players.

With the World Cup in the background all the time, the likes of Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy, Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy and Darren Cave have been standing out. More established current internationals like Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and Jared Payne have added their well-known quality in recent weeks too.

In this piece, we look at the positive contributions of some of those men, particularly the players Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will be examining closely. Best, Payne and Bowe are clearly safe bets for the final 31-man squad, so it’s the other Irishmen we focus on here.

Iain Henderson

We can probably add Henderson to the list of certainties for Schmidt’s World Cup selection, given the 23-year-old’s prominent role off the bench for Ireland in the last two seasons.

Henderson’s ability to cover both the second row and blindside flank makes him doubly useful in a squad of limited numbers, but is there cause for Schmidt to push Henderson into an even more eminent position with Ireland?

Schmidt has strong faith in Devin Toner, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony at present, though the opening World Cup clashes with Romania and Canada might provide Henderson with starting chances. That would be something to get excited about.

Last weekend, Henderson underlined his startling power during Ulster’s 26-10 victory over Leinster in Belfast, with his ball-carrying standing out once again.

We’ll come to his first-half try shortly, but even in the less glamorous carries Henderson did well. He didn’t win massive gainline every single time, but the blindside once again showed that he’s not just about brawn.

Hendo Feet

Above, we see Henderson deal with the linespeed of Gordon D’Arcy by slowing his run, stepping inside the Leinster centre and then fending hunting defender Isaac Boss. It’s not spectacular, but it’s a fine demonstration of Henderson’s footwork.

Below, there’s something similar as Henderson avoids getting smashed deep behind the gainline by pirouetting around Dominic Ryan’s tackle attempt.

Hendo Pirouette

Ulster lose a foot or two of ground in the end, but it’s Henderson’s quick reading of the situation and subsequent reaction with that spin that means the province keep quick, clean ball.

Try time

It was Henderson’s try that garnered most attention in terms of his attacking contribution and a superb one it was. Again, the ability to read play stands out as the former Belfast Royal Academy picks out the space in Leinster’s defence and fully exploits it.

Hendo Try

It’s a sharp finish from Henderson, who also resisted the temptation to attempt to run through Boss in the in-goal area and get right in underneath the posts, but it’s worth jumping back a phase to see where the score originates.

Ulster’s possession platform in this instance was actually a kick return [we'll come back to that later], but the phase prior to Henderson’s finish saw a crucial missed tackle from an unlikely source.

Hendo Try.1

Jackson sends Bowe crashing into the Leinster defence, where the Ireland wing loses possession. Unfortunately for the visitors, the ball bounces favourably into Louis Ludik’s hands and he bursts forward.

It’s truly difficult for Jamie Heaslip to react, having been involved in the initial tackle on Bowe, but the Leinster captain would still have expected to complete his tackle on Ludik. The miss occurs, however, and suddenly Leinster are in a real scramble situation.

Much of the focus around this try was on Sean O’Brien being blocked by referee John Lacey as he attempted to cover the space Henderson ran into, and when we freeze the frame below, it doesn’t look good.

Hendo Try.3

Obviously we never want a referee to be blocking a defender from potentially making a tackle, but from our point of view O’Brien would not have completed a tackle in this instance. He might well have got fingertips to Henderson, but we’d have backed the Ulsterman to break through regardless.

Note Henderson’s running line again and how close it is to the ruck. Study the image above for a second time and note Heaslip pointing to the left of the Leinster ruck; the captain recognises the glaring space.

Why is there no defender in that hole? Obviously the fact that Leinster have just been cut open by Ludik contributes, but so too does a smart bit of off-the-ball play from Rory Best.

Hendo Try .4

As we have highlight above and below, Best engages ever so briefly with Rob Kearney, preventing the fullback from getting across to the left of the ruck any earlier. That action comes after Best has cleared away Zane Kirchner, who had tackled Ludik.

Hendo Try .6

It’s only a split-second delay in truth, and it’s questionable whether Kearney would have made it into Leinster’s defensive line without Best’s interference, but it means the Leinster fullback is that half-metre further away from Henderson.

Kearney comes close to getting in a try-saving tackle, but as we can see below he’s just that half-metre off.

Hendo Try .5

Obvious credit goes to Ruan Pienaar for both his assisting pass and his success in tying down the pillar defender, Devin Toner. All in all, it’s a superbly-executed Ulster try topped off by a supreme Henderson line, though Leinster will regret their errors in the build-up.

Defensive work

As well as excelling with ball in hand, Henderson was phenomenally busy in defence. His tackle count was close to 20 as Leinster made no obvious effort to avoid his powerful hits, of which there were plenty.

Having a high tackle count is no real marker of value, but the quality of Henderson’s hits certainly are.

Hendo Smash and Pen

The above smash on Mike Ross set an early tone for Henderson, as he impressively burst back to his feet and then counter rucked, taking two Leinster players out of the contest in the process.

Lacey pinged Chris Henry for side entry, however, and there was no reward for Henderson’s dynamic effort. More successful was the second-half monstering of Dominic Ryan, below.

Hendo Hit - Two phases after other hit

Ulster win the turnover this time as the ball squirts out the side when Henderson’s teammates flood in behind him. From an individual point of view it’s another telling impact from Henderson, particularly as it comes just two phases after another of his tackles.

Oftentimes with exceptionally explosive athletes like Henderson, their involvements are quite sporadic. They’ll dominate the limelight with their most violent moments, but fade out of the game in between.

However, Henderson’s work rate and involvement rate both continue to rise as he consistently looks for a second contribution. That’s evident in how often his tackling is followed up by a counter ruck.

Hendo Nuisance

It’s illustrated above once again, as Henderson completes a tackle on Kearney and then bounces back to his feet and counter rucks against Kirchner and O’Brien. The Leinster pair lift Henderson into the air and then O’Brien leaves the match officials with an easy yellow-card decision by dropping the Ulsterman with little duty of care.

Even when he’s not involved in the tackle, Henderson loves to look for opportunities to counter ruck, demonstrated below.

Hendo Counter Ruck

Henderson’s efforts above add slightly more pressure for Boss as he box kicks, and he sends the ball a little too long, allowing Ulster to return the kick comfortably through Craig Gilroy.

That’s the access point that eventually leads to Ulster’s try five phases later. A try started in part by Henderson and finished emphatically by the same man.

Paddy Jackson

While the form of international rivals Ian Madigan and Ian Keatley has dipped, Ulster’s out-half is playing his best rugby of the season. Another excellent performance against Leinster last weekend will have piqued Schmidt’s interest even further.

The Kiwi is a fan of Jackson, having used him as a replacement in four of Ireland’s five games in the 2014 Six Nations before going with Madigan’s versatility for the decider against France in Paris.

Having had much of this season interrupted by injury, Jackson is fully fit again and on current form looks like a strong contender to make Ireland’s 31-man squad for the World Cup.

Jackson’s big linebreak in the build-up to Henderson’s try stands out as the moment of his evening, and it underlined the increasing attacking prowess of the Ulster out-half.

Again, Leinster will have looked at their failings in this instance, but Jackson deserves major credit for his identification of a chink in the defence, as well as his burst of acceleration in taking the gap.

Jacko Break .1

As highlighted above, Leinster start the phase in good defensive shape with a straight line filled with bodies. Typically, they come up with great linespeed and, is is their wont, there is something of a fracture in the line when the ball arrives in Jackson’s hands.

Jacko Break .2

Ryan is looking to get up aggressively on Jackson, but in doing so he isolates himself from the rest of the defence, something the Ulster out-half immediately identifies and exploits.

Tommy Bowe runs a clever switch line inside Jackson, which briefly forces Ryan to hesitate, sitting him down for the split second Jackson needs to burst onto Ryan’s outside shoulder.

Jacko Break .3

With O’Brien having targeted Roger Wilson initially, he’s in a poor position to step back inside on Jackson as the Ulsterman shows superb acceleration to dart past the despairing dive of Ryan.

From there, he swerves subtly around the covering Boss and then comes up with a rather surprising bosh on Jimmy Gopperth, before a deft short pass to Jared Payne on his right. Leinster recover to make good tackles on the next two phases, before Ludik manufactures another opening and then Henderson finishes the act.


Perhaps the part of Jackson’s game that has been most consistently pleasing in recent weeks has been his passing. The nine-times capped playmaker has been confidently taking the ball to the line and zipping crisp passes to teammates both long and short.

Jacko To Line

Basic moments like the one above, where Jackson moves towards the defence, draws in a defender and releases a simple pass for a runner to make yards are now the staple part of Jackson’s skillset.

However, he also possesses a nice range of passing, as the longer example below demonstrates.

Jacko Outside Pas

Jackson’s gorgeous left hander is perfectly weight in this instance, after he spots the opportunity for Ludik to break outside Ben Te’o. Without Luke Fitzgerald’s decision to step in and hit Ludik, Leinster were in trouble here.

The vision from Jackson is impressive, so too the power he puts into the pass. It’s not a fireball that’s going to tear the skin off Ludik’s palms, as some playmakers might be tempted to deliver here, rather a firm delivery that allows Ludik an easy catch.

Outside backs dream of being invited onto running lines in the manner Jackson provides here, and this aspect of the out-half’s game has vastly improved this season.


Schmidt often talks about doing his best to judge players in higher-intensity games. Sometimes a home clash against the Cardiff Blues in the Pro12 simply doesn’t provide that, so players need to stand out in the more high-profile league encounters and European fixtures to show their true value.

For Jackson to deliver in difficult conditions against a Leinster team desperate for a win is hugely encouraging, but there remain a pair of slight issues for Jackson. The presence of Pienaar inside him is the foundation for both.

Jacko Kick

Jackson showed some nice touches with the boot against Leinster, as he has done against other opposition recently too, but Pienaar remains a central figure in Ulster’s kicking game and takes much of that responsibility on his shoulders.

That said, Jackson did deliver a number of superb garryowens against Leinster, while he had only one memorably poor kick from hand throughout a game in which he actually kicked the ball more than Pienaar.

The signs are strong in this regard as Jackson continues to improve and take additional kicking responsibility from Pienaar. Perhaps more pressing is the need for Jackson to assume first-choice place-kicking duties for Ulster.

It’s unlikely to happen in the Pro12 play-offs, but it would only add to Jackson’s international claims if he were to underline his ability off the tee.

Jacko Dink

Despite those doubts, Jackson looks to be growing into a more complete out-half, although it’s his attacking game that is standing out at present. Moments of genius like the one above will only increase Ulster’s Pro12 chances.

Other contenders

Ulster have a host of in-form players and fortunately for Schmidt, several of them are Irish.

Dan Tuohy

Second row Dan Tuohy is another man who has had injury frustrations this season, but he delivered a timely reminder of this quality in Belfast last weekend alongside the superb Franco van der Merwe.

Tuohy Steal - 3 Points

The lineout steal above eventually led to three points for Ulster, Tuohy springing up in front of Mike McCarthy to pick off Richardt Strauss’ throw. That was just one of a number of excellent lineout involvements for Tuohy at Kingspan Stadium.

Van der Merwe is a lineout caller who likes to call the ball on himself very often, mainly because he’s an excellent jumper and reads the defensive alignment intelligently. However, against Leinster’s defensive strengths, van der Merwe relied heavily on Tuohy, calling the ball to the Ireland international repeatedly and getting lots of reward.

Away from the set-piece, Tuohy got through his simple ball-carrying close to the rucks efficiently, while also showing off his handling skills with one offload and the lovely tip-on pass below.

Tuohy Tip-On

It’s great to be an effective ball carrier, but the ability to shift the point of contact at the last moment is vital too. In this instance, Tuohy’s tip-on allows Henderson a more favourable collision and Ulster get over the gainline.

Tuohy is an aggressive player who has had issues controlling himself at times throughout his career, but when his combativeness is channeled in the right direction it’s massively impactful.

Tuohy Clear Out

In that vein, the aggressive clear-out of Fitzgerald we see above is encouraging for Schmidt as he keeps a close eye on Tuohy’s form ahead of the World Cup. Similarly, the strong shoulder into Ryan in the example below is impressive.

Tuohy Smash, Hendo Follow

This contact from Tuohy will have gone down as a missed tackle, but it’s a huge impact on Ryan and it allows van der Merwe to follow up by hammering the Leinster back row to deck. An Ulster turnover follows.

We’ve spoken about the folly of of reading too much into raw tackle stats before, but the point here is that Tuohy is winning big collisions for his team.

The 29-year-old faces stiff competition in the second row in terms of a World Cup spot, but his form is on the ideal trajectory.

Craig Gilroy

The man with the most twinkling of toes popped up for another classy score against Leinster, his 11th in the Pro12 this season. Gilroy featured for Ireland against Georgia last November, but is one of many strong options for Schmidt in the back three ahead of the World Cup.

The Ulster wing is in the midst of some of his finest form since 2012/2013, and the impression is of a man who is simply enjoying his rugby and not spending too much time worrying about whether Schmidt will call on him.


Gilroy’s pirouette is a thing of beauty and rare is the game where he doesn’t pull it out to beat a defender. The strength to shrug off Devin Toner immediately after spinning is equally as admirable.

The Ulster wing might be seen as something of an attacking luxury in the international game, and there is certainly improvement to come from his fielding, but the defensive intervention below might have impressed Schmidt and Les Kiss.

Gilly Tackle

With Leinster numbers up wide on the right, Gilroy shoots up looking to shut down the passing option on the outside edge. A huge hit on Ben Marshall would have been preferable to follow up, but the read and closing down are both strong.

The most lauded involvement of Gilroy’s evening was, of course, his finish for an 11th try in 15 Pro12 starts this season.

Gilly Try

The pace to finish the score stands out, but equally as important are the little stuttering steps Gilroy takes to slow himself ever so slightly as the ball flies from Pienaar to Jackson.

It’s tempting to arrive in at full steam here, potentially overrunning Jackson’s inside pass in an eagerness to score, but Gilroy displays the confidence and composure of an in-form wing to hold himself just enough to be in an ideal position to accept the pass.

Gilly Try.2

It’s a well-constructed Ulster score , as Pienaar pumps a dummy pass to the forward pod of Henry and Andrew Warwick, drawing Jordi Murphy into racing up out of the Leinster line and leaving that gaping hole for Jackson and Gilroy to exploit.

The understanding pass from Jackson again highlights his attacking prowess, after he draws in Gopperth.

Pro12 dreams

We’re well aware of the qualities the likes of captain Rory Best, right wing Tommy Bowe and centre Jared Payne bring to the Ulster mix, so there’s little need to delve into them here.

Darren Cave continues to provide understated but effective play in the midfield too, while Chris Henry is slowly recovering his game sense. Another interesting Irish contender is the bulldozing Stuart McCloskey.

Bangor Bulldozer

As with many of Ulster’s squad, the Bangor man has had to overcome injuries this season, but he is a wrecking ball of a carrier when fit. In just 29 minutes last weekend, McCloskey demonstrated that he is in the ‘potential World Cup bolter’ category.

Even if this World Cup comes too soon for the 22-year-old, his physical power means he looks like a certain future international.

All of these players have important roles as Ulster look to end their trophy drought by securing the Pro12 title in Belfast at the end of next month. Head coach Neil Doak will take confidence in his key men’s form, while Schmidt will continue to watch with interest.

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