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Half-term report: Ulster expanding style and confidence and they'll get better as the season wears on

Iain Henderson is out for the season, but Les Kiss can still expect his squad to be bolstered in 2016.

AFTER A STUTTERING start caused by the welcome distraction of the World Cup, the rugby season reached full swing last weekend. Here’s how we’re grading the first half(ish) of Ulster’s campaign.

Overall record: Won 8, lost 5

After taking nine points from pool rivals in a December back-to-back it’s difficult to pick holes in the new coaching regime at Kingspan Stadium.

Those two wins over Toulouse, coupled with an assumption of about nine more points against Oyonnax in January, colour Ulster’s campaign as a tale of two competitions. It’s not quite that simple. They are more like Jekyll and Hyde, usually depending on where they are playing, even if the good doctor has been present more often than not.

Rory Best and Thierry Dusautoir Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

Les Kiss’ first game in charge felt like a landmark: the win over Dragons ended a run of four away defeats on the trot and sent a message of intent from their last line of defence. Unfortunately, it was counter-balanced by their opening Champions Cup pool match.

Overall, despite a slew of injuries, Ulster are on course to hit their goals season and are even managing to develop a more attractive and expansive attacking game along the way.

Try of the season so far: Luke Marshall v Toulouse

We don’t always get very excited about cross-field kicks for tries. It’s a great weapon to unleash and difficult to defend, but we usually rather seeing well-executed handling skills in a lead up to a try.

Source: TheUAFC/YouTube

This one from Ruan Pienaar to Luke Marshall is a little different, because the set of phases that precede it include so many elements that Ulster see as their key work-ons. A solid maul, Craig Gilroy in Tommy Bowe’s trademark off-the-shoulder strike run with an added twist, animation from all players outside the passer, Paddy Jackson attacking the line and spinning an absolute gem of a pass out to Andrew Trimble.

A few efficient wide rucks later and Pienaar nonchalantly steps back to send the ball against the grain with a caressing touch off his weaker left foot.

This is a low: Saracens

There were two stand-out low points in Ulster’s season to date and both came at home on horrible wet nights in Ravenhill. Against Edinburgh, the performance was decent and the result was good (14 – 7 greatly flattered the visitors) yet the body count that followed was torturous to read. Iain Henderson was ruled out for the season, Peter Nelson too, while Dan Tuohy, Darren Cave both incurred significant problems.

Saracens' players celebrate their last try of the night Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

However, at the time, the home trouncing at the hands of Saracens looked likely to be even more damaging to the mental state of Ulster Rugby. The final margin of defeat was one thing, but more disconcerting was the swift ease with which Mark McCall’s men managed to score tries despite having men in the sin-bin. In the not-too-recent past, Ulster looked to be almost the equal of Sarries, pushing them every step of the way through that 2014 quarter-final despite having 14 men for 78 minutes.

As good as it gets: Toulouse (Home and away)

Thankfully, for the sanity of at least the northern quarter of rugby-loving island, Saracens forced an equal an opposite reaction rather than an inexorable slide out of the tournament. Before the home win over Toulouse, The42 suggested that the game felt like a return to the bad old days; when, while a season appeared to be unraveling, the proud Ulstermen dig deep on a Friday night to take a scalp.

38 – 0 is not the bad old the days, 38 – 0 is a stunning outcome from a team decimated by injuries digging deep to pile a 5-try whooping on a side sitting second in the Top 14. Most impressively, 38 – 0 was not an end, but the beginning of a two-part thriller that thrust Ulster back in to contention thanks to a third ever win in France.

Player of the season so far: Stuart McCloskey

The centre just keeps getting better and better, proving himself to be far more than a battering ram, but also an intelligent ball-player with the uncanny knack of picking out mismatches in defence long before they unfold.

Stuart McCloskey celebrates scoring a try with teammates Source: Presseye/Brian Little/INPHO

Coach calls

Injuries have meant that Les Kiss hasn’t a great deal of wiggle room in terms of selection since coming in after the World Cup. If you had to pick a contentious call then it would be the usual preference (at least until December’s Champions Cup rounds) for Roger Wilson over Robbie Diack, but we can understand using the old dog for the hard road over Diack’s superior athleticism now and then and he didn’t disappoint in Toulouse when Chris Henry was unavailable.

Les Kiss and Neil Doak Source: Presseye/Jonathan Porter/INPHO

Other than that, the centre combination has been intriguing. Kiss appears to have rejuvenated Luke Marshall by pushing him out another slot in to the 13 channel. Ulster have long been blessed with great depth at inside centre and that will be underlined further when Stuart Olding makes his comeback, but a little competition for Darren Cave is no bad thing either.

The big question in 2016: BT Sport might like us to believe the big question is whether Charles Piutau ever actually shows up in Belfast. The brilliant fullback’s stopover in Wasps certainly tempted the Coventry club to send the lawyers to work, but their heads have instead been turned to Leigh Halfpenny of late.

In the back row, they will have a NIQ place opening up after Nick Williams (just turned 32) decided to head for Cardiff before being shown the door. Williams has been an excellent servant to Ulster Rugby, but it makes sense not to renew the 32-year-old’s contract.

Nick Williams celebrates scoring a try Williams has been a great servant for Ulster, but there is little room for sentiment in the Nucifora era. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

Replacing him for next season will already be top of Bryn Cunningham’s to-do list. The province were reportedly sniffing around All Black Victor Vito before he settled for a stint in La Rochelle, so we’re talking high profile talents they’re after to join Charles Piutau, Ruan Pienaar and Franco van der Merwe.

Stuart McCloskey’s form for Ulster shows he’s good enough for Ireland

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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