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The Ulster depth chart: A World Cup winner and the thrilling back three

Dan McFarland’s men are aiming to be in trophy contention this season.

Updated Sep 17th 2021, 8:00 PM

AS THE UNITED Rugby Championship welcomes four new South Africa sides this season, Ulster have their own high-profile South African recruit in Duane Vermeulen.

The experienced new addition has completed Dan McFarland’s squad ahead of a campaign in which they hope to challenge for the URC title and advance past Clermont and Northampton in the Champions Cup.

Having examined the Munster, Connacht, and Leinster squads in recent days, we finish here by detailing McFarland’s options ahead of the 2021/22 campaign.

Included in brackets after each player’s name is their age and number of Ulster caps in the format [age, caps]. Players have been listed in the order of their number of caps.

Loosehead prop

Andrew Warwick [30, 137]
Eric O’Sullivan [25, 66]
Jack McGrath [31, 17]
Callum Reid [22, 5]

eric-osullivan-after-making-his-international-debut Eric O'Sullivan is an Ireland international. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ulster will have to do without the experienced Jack McGrath until later this season, with the former Lions prop rehabbing from a hip operation that he and the province hope will finally get him back to full fitness and mobility.

Eric O’Sullivan has stepped up well in his absence, however, and is now an Ireland international with lots of room for further development. The skillful 25-year-old will be out to earn himself more Test caps with his Ulster performances.

Meanwhile, 30-year-old Andrew Warwick is always a solid performer for the province, while 22-year-old Callum Reid has been promoted into the senior squad on the back of his promising performances. Kyle McCall was released at the end of last season.

Hooker

Rob Herring [31, 197]
John Andrew [28, 87]
Bradley Roberts [25, 5]
Tom Stewart [20, 0]

john-andrew-with-nick-tompkins John Andrew in action against Saracens. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The underrated Rob Herring is nearing the 200-cap mark for Ulster and will continue to battle with Ronan Kelleher for Ireland’s number two shirt this season.

Herring is the clear first-choice in this position with Ulster but he is ably backed up by two men with fantastic hair. The dynamic John Andrew had a strong 2020/21 season, while South Africa native Brad Roberts earned a permanent contract after coming in as injury cover initially. The Rainey Old Boys man improved with each of his five caps.

While Adam McBurney has departed for Edinburgh with ambitions of playing for Scotland, 20-year-old prospect Tom Stewart has joined the senior squad and will hope for his first taste of professional rugby.

Tighthead prop

Tom O’Toole [22, 61]
Marty Moore [30, 59]
Ross Kane [26, 52]
Gareth Milasinovich [28, 6] 

sione-kalafamoni-with-marty-moore Marty Moore is an experienced tighthead. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Tom O’Toole won his first Ireland cap in July and has already amassed 61 caps for Ulster at the age of 22 but he still has the more experienced Marty Moore ahead of him in the provincial pecking order.

Moore has been unable to force his way back into the Ireland squad having last played Test rugby in 2015 but he has become an important figure for Ulster thanks to his set-piece work and superb tackling – an area in which O’Toole also excels.

26-year-old Ross Kane can be impactful with ball in hand and is regarded as a good scrummager so he will be looking to kick on his season, while Ulster will hope to see the gigantic Gareth Milasinovich staying fit after his first campaign with the province was ruined by a long-term knee injury.

Second row

Alan O’Connor [29, 133]
Iain Henderson [29, 121]
Kieran Treadwell [25, 109]
Sam Carter [32, 23]
David O’Connor [26, 15]
Cormac Izuchukwu [21, 6]
Mick Kearney [30, 0]

ulsters-alan-oconnor Alan O'Connor has been extremely consistent for Ulster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ulster captain Iain Henderson was unlucky not to have any Test involvement for the Lions in South Africa over the summer and his involvement on that tour means his start to the new season will be delayed as he enjoys an extended break.

Alan O’Connor has been consistently good for Ulster in recent years, with his aggressive edge, leadership, and ever-improving passing skills all important. Ireland-capped Kieran Treadwell – who is rehabbing a shoulder injury at present – is an excellent athlete and will now look to find top-level consistency.

Former Wallaby Sam Carter is an experienced lock who will hope to improve in his second season with the province, while David O’Connor – Alan’s younger brother – will be hopeful of adding to his 15 Ulster caps this season.

21-year-old Cormac Izuchukwu showed great promise last season to earn a senior deal and looks like a major prospect for the future but he is sidelined with a long-term knee injury. 

With Henderson’s return delayed and both Treadwell and Izuchukwu injured – as well as just one Year 1 lock in the academy in Harry Sheridan – McFarland has signed former Connacht and Leinster lock Mick Kearney on a short-term deal and he should be a smart addition.

Back row

Sean Reidy [32, 144]
Nick Timoney [26, 81]
Matty Rea [27, 64]
Jordi Murphy [30, 48]
Greg Jones [25, 26]
Marcus Rea [24, 5]
David McCann [21, 6]
Duane Vermeulen [35, 0]

nick-timoney Nick Timoney won his first Ireland cap in July. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Yesterday’s announcement of the signing of South African World Cup winner Duane Vermeulen came as a happy surprise to Ulster fans, while McFarland is thrilled to have a totemic figure to fill the boots of Marcell Coetzee, who left for the Bulls last season.

Number eight Vermeulen is still a superb player at the age of 35 and will surely prove a good influence on other Ulster players but he won’t arrive until November, meaning Nick Timoney is set to continue his upward trajectory at the back of the scrum over the coming months. 

Timoney’s fine form last season earned him an Ireland cap, while new senior squad back row David McCann is seen as a player whose potential could see him playing Test rugby in the future.

Experienced figures like the hard-hitting Sean Reidy and savvy Jordi Murphy will be as important as ever, while McFarland will hope to see the athletic Matty Rea deliver on a consistent basis as his younger brother, Marcus, aims to add to his five senior caps.

Greg Jones is a versatile option in the back row with strong lineout skills, while academy number eight Azur Allison will be hoping to feature if McFarland needs to drop beyond his senior squad depth chart.

Scrum-half

John Cooney [31, 84]
David Shanahan [28, 71]
Nathan Doak [19, 2]

nathan-doak Nathan Doak is one to watch. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Now 31 and having seemingly accepted that his Ireland career is over, John Cooney remains a key figure for Ulster. He is heading into the final year of his contract and clubs abroad are sure to be interested in the exciting, goal-kicking scrum-half. Cooney will be fiercely determined to help Ulster to a trophy this season.

With Alby Mathewson having left at the end of last season, Cooney will be backed up by David Shanahan – who runs very clever support lines – and the prodigious Nathan Doak, the son of former Ulster coach Neil.

Doak, who can also play at out-half, showed his promise for the Ireland U20s over the summer and possesses a Ruan Pienaar-like skillset as well as a seemingly assertive personality. Already capped twice at senior level, he will look to take off in 2021/22.

Out-half

Billy Burns [26, 36]
Ian Madigan [31, 0]

billy-burns Billy Burns has become a leader for Ulster. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Bill Johnston has moved on to Ealing, meaning Billy Burns and Ian Madigan are the two out-and-out 10s in the Ulster squad, but the creative, quick Michael Lowry could spend more time in the position this season having been predominantly used at fullback up until now.

Angus Curtis usually lines up at inside centre but can also cover out-half, but Burns and Madigan are the more senior figures in the position.

Burns remains part of Andy Farrell’s Ireland set-up and has become a prominent leader in Ulster, offering clever attacking skills, good passing range, and also an infectious work-rate off the ball.

Madigan’s goal-kicking composure proved important on some big occasions last season and he has also apparently been a positive influence on the province’s off-pitch culture, settling into life in Belfast and embraced a mentorship role with young players.

Burns is number one but Madigan will look to keep the pressure on as Lowry potentially pushes through in this position too.

Centre

Luke Marshall [30, 144]
Stuart McCloskey [29, 140]
James Hume [23, 41]
Stewart Moore [22, 15]
Angus Curtis [23, 14]

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james-hume James Hume has impressed at 13. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The desperately unlucky Luke Marshall remains sidelined with a long-term knee injury and won’t be seen until later in the season, but the emergence of 23-year-old James Hume has amply covered for his absence at outside centre.

Now an Ireland international after an excellent 2020/21 campaign, Hume offers dangerous attacking skills with ball in hand, while his passing and defensive reads continue to improve. Will Addison is another good option at 13 for Ulster but he may see more game time at fullback.

Stuart McCloskey is a true cornerstone of this Ulster team, providing a rounded skillset at inside centre that includes strong ball-carrying, offloading, short and long passing, a breakdown threat, defensive communication, and even attacking kicking.

22-year-old Stewart Moore offers an excellent left-footed kicking option in the 12 shirt and appears to have the potential to be a complete midfielder given his skill level and athleticism.

Angus Curtis is another option in that slot, with his ability to distribute and make good decisions advantageous in a playmaking role. The 23-year-old deserves an injury-free run after his travails in recent years. 

Back three

Craig Gilroy [30, 194]
Jacob Stockdale [25, 82]
Rob Lyttle [24, 47]
Michael Lowry [24, 46]
Will Addison [29, 22]
Robert Baloucoune [24, 29]
Ethan McIlroy [21, 15]
Aaron Sexton [21, 1]

robert-baloucoune Robert Baloucoune scored a superb try on his Ireland debut. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

As mentioned above, Michael Lowry could feature more often at out-half this season but he is also an excellent option at fullback, where his acceleration and ability to identify space are particularly effective.

However, Ulster finally have Will Addison back fit after his injury nightmares and the creative, clever Ireland international could be a game-changer if he can stay fit. Addison can also play at 13 or on the wing but Ulster have more recently used him at 15.

Ireland’s Jacob Stockdale was utilised at fullback by province and country on a number of occasions last season but it’s hard to escape the feeling that he is at his best on the left wing. Now 25 and with 82 Ulster caps to his name, McFarland will hope to see Stockdale dominating some of the biggest games this season.

Robert Baloucoune is now an Ireland international too and showed his athleticism with his siperb try on debut against the US. The 24-year-old makes strong defensive reads and has good aerial skills, making him the favourite for the right wing slot.

Craig Gilroy is nearing the 200-cap mark for Ulster and while he hasn’t played for Ireland since 2017, he is still lethal in space and has improved his defensive work under Jared Payne in recent seasons.

There is plenty of competition out wide for Ulster with Rob Lyttle offering some of the finest footwork in Ireland, Ethan McIlroy having shown his exciting skillset and composure in 15 senior caps so far, and the rapid Aaron Sexton now stepping up onto a senior deal. Lyttle, McIlroy, and Sexton can all play at fullback as well as on the wing.

Louis Ludik has retired after giving superb service to Ulster, while Matt Faddes has returned to New Zealand, but McFarland certainly isn’t short of options in the back three.

Academy

Ulster’s Year 1 intake is made up of five Ireland U20 internationals, with James Humphreys – the son of Ulster legend David – among them. Harry Sheridan impressed in the second row in the U20 Six Nations, while outside back Jude Postlethwaite is a very promising athlete.

With only three senior scrum-half options available to McFarland, Year 3 halfback Lewis Finlay will be hoping to take any opportunities sparked by injuries.

Year 1

George Saunderson [loosehead]
Harry Sheridan [second row]
Conor McKee [scrum-half]
James Humphreys [out-half]
Jude Postlethwaite [centre]

Year 2

Ben Carson [centre]
Reuben Crothers [back row]
James McCormick [hooker] 
Ben Moxham [back three/centre]
Conor Rankin [back three]

Year 3

Azur Allison [back row]
Lewis Finlay [scrum-half].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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