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'Ulster players have to go above and beyond in their performances to be selected for Ireland'

A new generation of Ulster players have emerged to help the club reconnect with fans – now they want recognition by Ireland.

ONE SUNNY DAY a few years ago, Michael Lowry drove to Ulster’s training ground in south Belfast. It was a route he knew well, a journey that normally takes around 15 minutes. This time it lasted a bit longer.

Approaching Stranmillis, Lowry noticed a chap struggling to guide his wheelchair up the steep hill. It was 9.10am. Normally among the first to arrive at Pirrie Park for training, the then Ulster academy coaches, Willie Anderson and Kieran Campbell, quickly earmarked Lowry as officer class. “You could set your clock by him,” says Anderson.

That’s why he was taken aback when Lowry’s car landed in his parking spot ten minutes later than usual. He was still on schedule but in Michael Lowry’s world, there’s a big difference between being on time and being early. A puzzled Anderson asked if something was wrong.

“Ah, I just had to do something,” he replied.

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It was only later that day, when the entire group was sitting down for lunch that Anderson got the whole story. A club physio just so happened to be driving behind Lowry when the Ulster full-back braked suddenly at Stranmillis and pulled into a side-street, getting out of the car to race down the hill. The guy in the wheelchair was pushed all the way home.

“That story sums Michael up for me,” says Anderson. “I’ve a lot of affinity for him because (when I coached him) he spoke my language, the language that David Irwin and I would have installed into the Ulster team in the ‘80s. So when he, Robert, James, Ethan McIlroy, Stewart Moore, all emerged over a short period of time, it kind of ignited me to say ‘jeepers, we have a new breed that has the values of old and new’. We’re going to be okay.”

michael-lowry-with-his-heineken-star-of-the-match-award Lowry has been a shining light for Ulster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Values.

It wasn’t a word anyone was quick to attach to Ulster in 2018, the club’s image deeply tarnished by revelations of misogynous behaviour in their dressing room, its team going nowhere fast. This was the year Brian O’Driscoll dubbed the club a ‘basket case’ on national radio. At that stage 12 years had passed since their last trophy win. It’s now up to 15.

But last weekend something happened. They outclassed Northampton 24-20 at Franklin’s Gardens and in the recent history of Ulster Rugby, no game left so many feeling so good about their heroes. It wasn’t just that Ulster won, that they’d scalped an English giant; it was how they won and who they won with.

Lowry, the Good Samaritan, was at full-back, Robert Baloucoune, ‘The Cat’, was on one wing, Ethan McIlroy, the shy academy graduate, on the other. In the centre, Belfast’s James Hume was partnered by Ballymoney’s Stewart Moore. Lisburn’s Nathan Doak was the starting scrum half. Six home-grown backs, the eldest 24, the youngest 20, it was easy to see the source of the optimism.

And Anderson, an old student of the game, felt pangs of emotion: “I was just so proud,” he said. “I’ve known these boys such a long time and respect them as people so, so much. They say good people make good rugby players. Well, it’s true with these guys. They’re special.”

willie-anderson Anderson was Ulster academy coach for four years. Source: Presseye/John McIlwaine/INPHO

You can’t underestimate how badly Ulster needed something like this to happen. Back in 2018, when their reputation was tarnished beyond repair, it was hard to see how they’d be liked again. Sacking Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson – authors of those misogynous WhatsApp messages – was a starting point.

Then a new season brought with it a clean slate. They’d a different coach, new players and a new chief executive.

Focus gradually turned to on-field matters. They were doing okay, putting it up to Leinster in a European Cup quarter-final. By now there was a new problem.

“The worry for some Ulster fans was that we were becoming Leinster-lite,” says Jonathan Bill, the chair of their supporters club. “That’s not a slight on Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath, Nick Timoney, John Cooney or Eric O’Sullivan because they’ve given everything for the Ulster shirt. But it was as if the Ulster shirts had been put in the wrong wash and had come out a slight shade of blue. That did worry some people.”

Dan McFarland, their head coach since September 2018, wasn’t concerned. He’s English by birth but made a point last year that the source of his past has nothing to do with his present. “I’ve got an attachment to Ulster in my family history and feel a part of the fabric here,” he said.

“Nick Timoney (a Dubliner) is an Ulsterman. When he pulls on that jersey, he’s an Ulsterman. It’s just as simple as that.”

Except in Ulster nothing is simple. Identity is a big thing. This isn’t a rugby club, more a de facto national team. “Many Ulster supporters think of the Ireland team as ….. meh,” says Bill, screwing his face into a grimace to reinforce his point. “They see Ulster players ignored by Ireland, (Iain) Henderson getting injured when he’s on duty with them. Look, when Ireland beat New Zealand, I was thrilled, but for many Ulster fans, there has been a disinterest in Ireland; it is a bit of ‘what has that got to do with us’?”

iain-henderson Henderson starred for Ireland against New Zealand. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

It would take a professor of history to fully explain why. Even Anderson, a GAA supporting former captain of Ireland is quick to point out how Ulster players ‘have to go above and beyond in their performances if they are going to be selected for Ireland. That has been historic’.

To the outside world, this smacks of paranoia. Ulster is different, for sure, in terms of its heritage, culture and politics and long ago, when Anderson was a streetwise operator in the second row, there was definite justification for querying why he had to wait until his 28th birthday for his first Ireland cap, and why Nigel Carr, a world class flanker, didn’t play international rugby until he was 25.

But these days the Ireland team is picked by a Lancastrian, previously by a New Zealander. If Ulster players didn’t make it in the last decade, well it was because Ulster players weren’t good enough. That’s a harsh truth.

“It’s hard to accept that (point),” says Bill. “Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, John Cooney, they’re prime examples of players who we feel were hard done by.”

The third name on that list is an interesting one. Cooney, after all is a Dubliner, whereas Trimble and Cave are Ulster born. “Yes, but he’s an adopted Ulsterman,” says Bill. “Anyone who wears a white jersey, we adopt. And if doesn’t get picked for Ireland, it annoys us. Cooney deserved a chance.”

That begs another question. Does the average Ulster fan feel irked that a Dubliner, Cooney, may get selected over Doak, an academy graduate, a son of the soil, son of a former Ulster stalwart?  “No. And that is an emphatic no,” says Bill. “We see John Cooney as one of our own.

nathan-doak-takes-a-kick-812022 Doak has emerged as Cooney's heir. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Plus, we’re realists. We’ve long gone past the days of going into our local (rugby) clubs and seeing the Irish international doing bar duty on a Tuesday. Still, events like last Sunday, seeing all those young players on a field, playing superb rugby, well that gives a warm, fuzzy feeling. There’s no doubt about that.”

For fans like Bill, beating Northampton wasn’t a surprise. He was in Navan when Timoney first wore an Ulster shirt against Leinster A way back in 2015. “I ended up standing next to his father; you could see then that he had a determination to make it. Ah Nick, he’s one of ours, we consider him that, anyway.”

But his birth cert says Dublin. Doak’s doesn’t. Nor Hume’s, McIlroy’s, Moore’s, Baloucoune’s, Lowry’s. Bill saw each of them make their debuts, not just for the Ulster first XV but also for Ulster A. “Sure look, young Doak has been a ball boy at Ulster since he was five years old. It was very amusing for us terrace dwellers, watching this natural born show-off come onto the field at half-time and drop goals from the ten-yard line; it was like that Rory McIlroy moment when he was a kid chipping balls into a washing machine on the local chat show.

“And now he and the rest of the young lads have emerged into stars. That Harry Kane song which the Tottenham fans sing, do you know it? ‘He’s one of our own, Harry Kane, he’s one of our own’. That’s Nathan, Ethan, James, Stewart, Robert, Michael, David McCann, Jacob Stockdale, Luke Marshall. I could go on and on.

“It is important, important to a province like ours that feels a little bit out on a limb, a little bit more exposed, neither one thing nor the other. We have our own expression of Ulsterisms. So, let’s be blunt, it is pleasing to see these young players come through. Just don’t for one second think that if another John Cooney comes up here that we won’t adopt him. We will, be sure we will.”

john-cooney-applauds-celebrates-after-the-game One of their own: adopted son, John Cooney. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

***

IN THE CHILL, grey gloom of a January afternoon, Anderson lit the fire in his home and switched on the television. Watching these former students of his – players he coached values as well as rugby to – produce such a brilliant display against Northampton was a deeply personal moment.

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He remembers when they were less sure; when Lowry was cursed by injury, when Moore was travelling home at weekends to work on his father’s farm; when Hume was slowly realising that a simple pass could also be a game-changing one. “Each of them had to be managed differently,” says Anderson.

“Take Michael. Now, I’d trust Michael with my life. His passion for Ulster; his empathy for fellow players; his bravery; his tactical maturity, he has it all. If you needed a try in the final minute of a game and Michael Lowry had a two on one, you’d trust him to make the right decision.”

Hume used to be different. Anderson tended to scold him in pre-game talks.

“Do you think you’ll do it for the team today, James?” he’d ask.

“You see James needed that kind of psychological build-up. Michael responded to the arm around the shoulder; Robert (Baloucoune) reacted well to a bit of banter; but James, James had to be brought down a notch or two rather than be told he was wonderful.

“We had our run-ins, and in fairness to him, he came through that period; he realised that it was not all about James Hume, that he was just a cog in a team.  

“I’d always tell the truth. Some guys liked it, some didn’t. But James, Michael, Robert, they liked the fact you respected them, that you trusted them, that you were honest. Seeing them now, doing that to Northampton, it’s special, special also because they’re Ulstermen.

“People know that when you are playing with James Hume, Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, that they have got your back; that they not going to let you down, they are not doing it for the flash, they are doing it for the jersey, the province.”

They aren’t alone. Moore, the farmer’s son, had an exceptional game in midfield last Sunday. Anderson used to tell him to get back to the farm and build up his strength. “Stewart Moore is as hard as nails. He has skills. He is a tough wee boy.”

So is Baloucoune. But a few years back, there was a problem: his timekeeping. “He’d come from junior rugby in Enniskillen, where his talent shone. But this was the professional game; things were more demanding. We’d have one-on-ones; we’d explain to him, ‘look, Robert you are going to be a fantastic player – certainly he was a fantastic guy – but if you’re going to make it, you need to be on time’. Robert just had to be told that he had incredible potential. That was all. Once he knew it, well he took off.”

Doak was different. Doak knew he was good.

And yet it’s worth noting that in the current Ireland squad, his name isn’t in there. Hume’s is, so too Baloucoune’s and Lowry’s. Anderson offers a warning.

“Nathan certainly has potential to be a very, very talented player; he can go the whole way.

“I would just love someone to say to him, ‘right, we’re not going to start from dot. We are going to look at your game, dissect it and we are going to go off on another level’ because a couple of (scrum-half) experts who I respect have watched him a couple of times and have said to me that he is too slow to the breakdown, that his box-kicking needs to be worked on. These are things that can all be rectified. If they are, he’ll be fine.”

So will Ulster. Watching them last weekend got Anderson thinking of Alex Ferguson of all people, noting how Ulster’s togetherness and spirit reminded him of Manchester United at their peak. “If I try to imagine my last 20 years in management without those home-grown lads, I find it hard to visualise the base of the team,” wrote Ferguson in his second autobiography. “They carried the spirit of Manchester United inside them.”

That’s the prospect staring at Ulster now, not just this evening when they face the French giants, Clermont, but throughout the rest of this season and the rest of this decade. That’s the impact young players can have on a club. They offer hope as well as energy, a sense of belonging, of identity, and not just a link to the past but given what went on in 2018, a break from it.

It is Ulster who have been struggling up the hill since then. But now, there’s a new team emerging and a new hope that they too may discover what Ferguson realised a long time ago. In sport, you win nothing without kids.

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Garry Doyle

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