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'Ulster had a different hurdle to overcome during lockdown than anybody else in Ireland'

Bernard Jackman believes the rules around the UK government’s furlough scheme may have left Ulster a couple of weeks behind their rivals.

Ulster's Ian Madigan.
Ulster's Ian Madigan.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

RUGBY’S RETURN IN Ireland exceeded giddy expectations over the weekend with two cracking interprovincial encounters playing out at the Aviva on Saturday on Sunday.

And the following Thursday, there was still plenty of residual jubilation detectable in three living rooms dotted across Dublin and Cork as Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey returned to a full complement for a Rugby Weekly podcast debrief.

It was, as one would expect, a jam-packed show with the lads sparing no detail in dissecting Leinster and Connacht’s victories as well as RG Snyman’s injury and so much else that occurred at Lansdowne Road over the weekend.

And Bernard also came prepared with a theory as to why Ulster seemed a bit undercooked in their defeat to the men from the west on Sunday, suggesting it may not have been only as a result of their having already reached the semi-finals.

Indeed, the former Ireland hooker says his friend Dan McFarland has cause for concern following Ulster’s defeat, but also explained that McFarland’s side were at a greater disadvantage than the other provinces during lockdown — for entirely non-rugby reasons.

“Here’s something that I’m wondering, and maybe it’s something that the listeners haven’t thought about,” Bernard said. “The Ulster squad had a different hurdle to overcome during the Covid-19 lockdown than anybody else in Ireland.

I don’t know if you remember but Ulster’s players went on furlough, which is basically the UK government’s benefits scheme to try and keep businesses alive. And there were quite strict regulations within that around the amount of training you could do, because you weren’t allowed to do activities that were part of your job. I know that the Welsh regions really struggled with some of this and it was harder for them to have group sessions, it was harder for them to give out programmes, et cetera, because effectively, they weren’t supposed to be working. And I wonder if Ulster were a little bit caught by that, and has that left them shy of the preparation that the other three [provinces] have had. [The other provinces] were limited by Covid-19 lockdown but there were no limits around players’ physical activity.

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“Definitely, for me, they (Ulster) looked a week or two behind Connacht, Leinster and Munster in terms of their physical capacity,” Bernard added. “Their body language, their ability to get off the ground quickly, their ability to get in position — particularly for the last 20 minutes — was of marked contrast.

“Was it psychological? If it was then we can expect to see a big improvement this weekend. But if not, maybe then it’s a race to be ready when they go to Edinburgh the week after [for their semi-final].

“I was looking at some stats last weekend and their away record is only something like 30% which isn’t the type of form you want from a team that are going to be trying to win trophies.

“So, there are big question marks around Ulster — based on only one game, but I think Dan [McFarland] will be worried.”

You can listen to the full podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get yours.

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