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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 10 December, 2019

From prop concerns to Piutau promise: It's your big Ulster season preview

Will this be the year Rory Best gets his hands on a trophy for his native province?

IT WAS A SICKENINGLY familiar finish to last season for the northern province as they went down, once again, away to Leinster in the semi-final.

In Europe too, it was a familiar foe who pulled the rug from under Ulster as Saracens showed every ounce of their title credentials in accomplished home and away wins in the Champions Cup.

Rory Best Source: Presseye/Matt Mackey/INPHO

Despite those crushing disappointments though, Les Kiss’ first season in full-time charge gave plenty of reasons for real optimism.

It was the season when Paddy Jackson showed the rest of the world the quality and confidence that Ravenhill always knew existed. The season when Stuart McCloskey backed up his barn-storming first full campaign so thoroughly that only the restricted international minutes should be real cause for disappointment. And another season when they took a torch to the notion that winning in France is a rarity.

What’s changed?

The captaincy has been handed down from Rory Best to co-captains Andrew Trimble and Rob Herring. Undoubtedly the biggest change though, will be the presence of a bona fide star of world rugby in Charles Piutau. Back row Marcell Coetzee is a more pragmatic signing to boost the forward muscle with Nick Williams allowed to go join Cardiff, but the Springbok won’t be fit to play until the new year.

Rodney Ah You is already looking an important signing (more on that below) from Connacht while young lock Kieran Treadwell and scrum-half Angus Lloyd arrive are also Irish-qualified, coming in from Harlequins and Trinity respectively.

Rory Scholes scores a try Rory Scholes enjoyed a breakthrough season last year, but has now left the Irish system. Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

On top of Williams’ exit, Sam Arnold has gone south to Munster and Rory Scholes followed Michael Allen to Edinburgh.


Escaping Champions Cup pools is a damn sight more difficult than it was during the Heineken Cup era, but Ulster will surely be pleased to have avoided Saracens this time around.

While Clermont are never short of a serious array of talent, they’re susceptible to some big blips (most notably late in the season, but also on the road). Exeter Chiefs and Ian Madigan’s Bordeaux Begles are quality opposition too, but winning home and away is a very real possibility for Ulster.

Why they ought to be excited

We’ve mentioned Charles Piutau, right?

Charles Piutau Source: Presseye/Simon King/INPHO

The All Black feels like an even better signing now than when Ulster announced the deal 18 months ago. Piutau has had a season to adapt to the northern hemisphere and left English rugby utterly shredded by his skill-set.

The only issue is, he strengthens an areas which was already one of Ulster’s strongest. So – presuming Jared Payne will move into midfield permanently – between Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy, Stu Olding and Louis Ludik, there will always be a number 23 with a point to prove on the Ulster bench.

Big concern

They may look over-stocked in the back three, but injuries in pre-season have left Allen Clarke’s forward pack looking very light.

Three tighthead props are on the injured list to start the new season and Rodney Ah You — a powerful man, but not the fittest prop around — is the only natural ’3′ left standing. If they can’t bus someone in from another province, it will be down to Andy Warwick to switch sides to take some weight off the Ireland international’s shoulders.

27 May, are they Aviva-bound?

To make (and win) the final, Ulster need to give themselves the best possible chance by taking a top two place and a home semi-final — then hope Leinster aren’t on the other side in the final.

Last season they were only four points shy of that mark, so making the top two means maintaining a high rate of consistency from the very start of the season and making sure to put the foot down and take bonus points when they have teams beaten at home.

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Sean Farrell

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