Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
# Northern Exposure
5 questions for Ulster ahead of their latest European adventure
Can Neil Doak guide his province to greatness, or will it all end in heartbreak again?

1. How will the team operate with the Les Kiss vacuum

ULSTER’S DIRECTOR OF rugby has now gone back to his day job of helping Joe Schmidt reach the semi-finals of the World Cup and left Neil Doak holding the reins.

Short-term there’s unlikely to be much impact as Kiss is still of course still free to speak with Doak on the phone and it’s a part of his job to visit provincial training now and then.

Les Kiss Presseye / William Cherry/INPHO Presseye / William Cherry/INPHO / William Cherry/INPHO

Over the course of the season, however, it will be interesting to see how Doak, his backroom staff and incoming team manager share the workload.

2. How will the pack hold up?

The back row is (touch wood) injury free and well-balanced as long as long as Robbie Diack and Chris Henry remain as flankers. However, while the front row has passed mustard so far, it has not face a task anything like Toulon.

Most concerning of all is the second row. It had been hoped that Iain Henderson would be the ready-made replacement for Johann Muller this season, but he’s out long-term with a troublesome hip problem.

Robbie Diack and Iain Henderson after the game Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Dan Tuohy is also on the list of injured and even the replacement’s back-ups are doubtful: short-term signing Ronald Raaymakers is unlikely to be match-fit even if he shakes off an arm injury and the impressive early season form of Alan O’Connor will probably be disrupted after he faces the Pro12 disciplinary committee today.

3. Options in midfield, but who misses out?

Two years ago you might have been committed for suggesting that Luke Marshall would be Ulster’s third-choice inside centre even after the retirement of Paddy Wallace. That however, is exactly the state of play heading into matchday one of the European season.

The form and extra physical presence of Stuart McCloskey will see the most recent challenger for the number 12 jersey retain his place against Manu Tuilagi and Leicester this weekend.

Stuart Olding offloads to Luke Marshall who runs in to score Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

While McCloskey thrives and Stuart Olding remains the exciting wildcard in Ulster’s back-line, one man who really appears to be suffering from Marshall’s absence is Jared Payne. The Kiwi’s re-conversion from fullback to outside centre seemed to be right on track last season, but with a potential international cap in the offing next month Payne has struggled for form outside of McCloskey.

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All that and we didn’t even mention Darren Cave… Ulster’s long-standing number 13 can feel rightly aggrieved at missing out on big match minutes in order to bed Payne in to his role.

4. Will we see Ruan? Andrew?

South Africa’s medical team ruled the scrum-half out for between four and six weeks – that was four weeks ago. Pienaar was quoted on last week saying “none of us are sure” when exactly when he’d be back and Doak was offering no hints this week.

Ruan Pienaar 10/10/2014 ©William Cherry / Presseye ©William Cherry / Presseye / Presseye

The province are also playing their cards close to their chest with regards to Andrew Trimble. The winger walked off with a toe injury on Saturday and the medical staff have delayed the release of any scan results this week.

The deputies for Pienaar and Trimble are well able to make their own impact. And Toulon are the last opponents you would want to face if you are feeling your way back to fitness.

5. Is discipline a problem?

Red cards are not a common occurrence in rugby, so to have three in the last 12 games (with an extra citing hearing today for Alan O’Connor) is an alarming rate.

Tom Court gets a red card from referee Luke Pearce Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Now, we can – and have – nit-picked at the individual merits of each refereeing decision, but if Ulster really are to get themselves onto the next level in European rugby then having 15 men on the pitch is a good place to start.

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