Laszlo Geczo/INPHO Double act: James Hume and Mike Lowry.
# ties that bind
'Michael and James have great potential that we're starting to see at the top level'
Dan Soper is hoping Ulster duo James Hume and MIke Lowry are given an opportunity to shine with Ireland.

DAN SOPER HAS guided the development of James Hume and Mike Lowry for the last seven years and he acknowledges that he perhaps may be too close to the situation when it comes to assessing their international prospects.

From 2014, he was responsible for drilling the basics into them at RBAI on their way to three consecutive Ulster Schools’ Cup titles, then he refined those skills as first Skills Coach and then Attack Coach at Ulster. Every step of the way Soper has been there, charting their rise to where they are now.

You only have to look at what they have produced against Clermont and Northampton Saints in the Heineken Champions Cup to see that they are two of the most lethal backs in Europe at present, with Lowry in particular standing out by leading the way in clean breaks (eight), defenders beaten (23) and metres made (562, an eye-popping 180 more than any other player).

Now Soper hands them over to a new set of coaches down at Carton House – or, at present, in Portugal – with the hope that Andy Farrell sees the potential in them to give them a crack with the international side during the Six Nations.

As the man who has guided them for most of their formative years and then in their infancy in senior rugby as well, Soper deflects all of the credit away from his coaching for their success, but does concede a certain amount of adaptability has played its part.

“There’s no doubt to get to the level they’ve got to – and even still to play Ulster Schools, Irish Schools – you need to have that bit of raw talent. But that alone doesn’t get you into an international rugby squad,” opines Soper.

“The great thing is the two of them are really coachable and they want to learn, as do a lot of guys in the squad. Michael and James have always had that and certainly they have matured into great young men with great potential that we’re starting to see at the top level.

“I’m probably biased. I’d love to see them get an opportunity this weekend, it’d be class. Did I see it when they were kids at school? They’ve always stood out, haven’t they? They’ve always stood out as a wee bit ahead of the pack.

“They’ve always had that aspiration in the back of their mind, and I suppose I have too that they’d get that chance. Hopefully it’s this weekend.”

michael-lowry-and-james-hume-after-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO The pair after playing an U19 International friendly against Japan in 2017. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Of course, in their absence there are opportunities back at Ulster for others to step up, as they did against Scarlets last week in guiding the province to a bonus-point win over the Welsh region.

With Ethan McIlroy moving back to full-back to fill in for Lowry, it was Rob Lyttle who came back into the line-up for his 50th cap and was dangerous throughout on the wing, while centre Angus Curtis continues to do a stellar job at filling in for both Hume and the injured Stuart McCloskey at inside centre.

“Angus has done brilliantly, it’s exactly the kind of thing you want to see at this time of year when someone like Angus gets an opportunity to get a run of games in the team that they perform really well and you start to see the potential they’ve shown in training out here on Friday night,” says Soper.

“Ben Moxham (got) a start, Robbie Lyttle, who hasn’t had much of an opportunity this year, got a game, Aaron Sexton on the bench. It’s a great opportunity at this time of the year for those guys to get a taste of playing in the first team.”

Even beyond that, however, there are opportunities to grow that perhaps aren’t quite so evident to those outside the team room at Kingspan Stadium. Having players step up into the leadership vacuum created by the absences of the likes of Iain Henderson and Rob Herring is another key item on the checklist for the Ulster coaching staff.

“It’s really exciting because the other thing that happens is guys who haven’t had quite the leadership role as when the whole squad is there are now being asked to step up into a leader’s role,” adds Soper.

“It’s a great opportunity for growth for the squad.”

Growth continues against Connacht on Friday night (8:15pm) in a rare inter-provincial held during an international window – a necessary scheduling issue due to the number of games postponed over the Christmas break due to Covid-19 outbreaks.

Andy Friend’s men have proven sticky opposition for Ulster in their last few meetings, the most recent being a painful trip to the Aviva Stadium in October that saw them on the end of a 36-11 pasting and leading to the northern province undergoing a period of soul-searching during the autumn break.

ulsters-assistant-coach-dan-soper Dan Soper.

“We took a lot of learning out of that game, they exposed quite a number of issues that the previous four teams we played hadn’t done. In some ways they did us a great service that day by giving us a bit of a lesson. We took a lot of learnings from that game,” admits Soper.

“Are we better prepared to face them now? Yes, I would say without doubt our game has moved on nicely. On the flipside, Connacht, I know the results haven’t gone their way but the rugby they’ve been playing the last couple of weeks has been good.

“We’ve had a good run of results and we’re pleased with how we are progressing as a team. We also know that all that counts for nothing going into an inter-provincial derby with Connacht, who we have had some really tough battles with in the last few years.

“It’s nice to have the confidence of form but the last time we played it was exactly the same, we came in off the back of four wins and they had lost at home to the Dragons.

“Connacht are a really difficult team to beat at the best of times but they’ll be really disappointed with what happened at the weekend. Beware the wounded Connacht team, I’d say.”

Soper confirmed that he would be “surprised” if either John Cooney or Stuart McCloskey returned from injury in time to feature in Friday’s game at Kingspan Stadium.


Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment

    Leave a commentcancel