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'One thing's for sure - we are desperately keen for Ulster to be strong'

Joe Schmidt and the IRFU understand that Ulster need an out-half

IT’S RARE THAT an Irish province would still be looking to sign a player in as important a position as out-half at this late stage of the season, but then it hasn’t exactly been a run-of-the-mill season.

Ulster lost their leading out-half when Paddy Jackson’s contract was revoked in April, before their attempt to bring in a foreign signing – South African playmaker Elton Jantjies – to replace him was knocked back by the IRFU.

Johnny McPhillips Johnny McPhillips was Ulster's first-choice 10 at the end of their season. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The union hoped that one of Ross Byrne or Joey Carbery would shift to Belfast to sort the problem but both players rejected the opportunity, with the former staying put in Leinster and the latter opting for a move to Munster next season.

All of this, of course, leaves Ulster still without an out-half to compliment and help develop the youthful promise of 21-year-old Johnny McPhillips.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt fielded plenty of questions this week about Carbery heading to Munster, insisting he didn’t have a heavy influence on the move, but he was also asked about where this all leaves Ulster.

Schmidt is one of the key decision-makers in Irish rugby, although he stressed that IRFU performance director David Nucifora is the person who makes the final calls around player contracting and transfers.

For Ulster, there are two options: a non-Irish-qualified [NIQ] player or an Irish out-half from one of the other provinces.

With regards to that second option, Munster is the obvious place to look. Carbery’s arrival could swell their out-half stocks to five players when taking into account Ian Keatley, JJ Hanrahan, Bill Johnston and Tyler Bleyendaal – who Munster insist will recover from a neck injury next season.

Keatley has been strongly linked with a move to Ulster in recent weeks, although Hanrahan and Johnston might be longer-term solutions.

That said, neither 25-year-old Hanrahan or 21-year-old Johnston have the kind of experience at out-half that Ulster have lost with Jackson’s exit.

PIC Bill Johnston and Ian Keatley are part of what could be a backlog at Munster. Source: Inpho

Going abroad at this stage of the season is possibly tricky, but options like Quade Cooper – another who has been linked with Ulster recently – are still available and competitions such as the Mitre 10 Cup or Currie Cup feature many talented players.

Schmidt stressed that Ireland hope to see Ulster’s out-half issue resolved, pointing out that Nucifora will be the key IRFU influence as Schmidt worries about the tour of Australia.

“That’s part of his brief,” said Schmidt. “It’s something that he will balance up and make a decision on. Is there potentially a concertina effect with the movement of Carbery?

“That’s potentially part of a solution, maybe an NIQ is another part of a solution. One thing’s for sure – we are desperately keen for Ulster to be strong. We need as many people at the top table as possible, being competitive and looking to be as good as they can be.

“I know that David Nucifora is very keen for that as well. He has the job of an impossible balancing act of trying to keep all those balls in the air and I guess there’s going to be a fair few discussions over the next few days between the provinces about what happens now.

“One of the things with Joey going, the two Ireland U20 10s, Harry [Byrne] and Conor [Dean], they’re both Leinster, Ciaran Frawley had one start in the Pro14 and was man of the match.

“One of the really good things is that those guys will emerge and step up too. That’s another bonus that’s only occurred to me now, there might be a window for some of those guys to get involved.”

David Nucifora The IRFU's David Nucifora. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Leinster, with their strong tradition of bringing through homegrown talent, will endeavour to ensure those youngsters progress, but we can be certain that they would prefer if Carbery was returning to them next season.

Ulster, meanwhile, will be hoping to get their own out-half issue resolved sooner rather than later.

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Murray Kinsella

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