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McFarland's Ulster keep the faith in collective speed and ball-handling skill

The northern province stuck to their philosophy as they mounted a dramatic comeback last night.

ONE OF DAN McFarland’s biggest additions early on in his Ulster reign went well under the radar.

Not too many people got excited when the unheralded Dan Soper was appointed as the province’s skills coach in 2018, but the New Zealand native had built up an excellent reputation within the amateur game in Ireland having arrived initially in 1998.

Soper coached in the All-Ireland League with Ballynahinch and Banbridge, and also enjoyed success as a director of rugby in the schools game with RBAI.

dan-soper Dan Soper came from amateur Irish rugby to make a big impact with Ulster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Keen for Ulster to play with what he terms ‘collective speed,’ McFarland felt the skill levels needed to improve across the board.

If his team was going to play at high tempo, they needed to be capable of keeping the ball alive pre- and post-contact. And so, Soper got to work alongside existing attack coach Dwayne Peel.

Anyone who has watched Ulster in recent years will have clearly seen McFarland’s philosophy gradually growing and, when they were in trouble in last night’s Guinness Pro14 semi-final against Edinburgh, it would have been heartening for the coaching staff to see their players maintain belief in the plan.

Rather than going into their shells as they chased the game, Ulster kept the faith, benefited from a brilliant bench impact, fixed their maul, and pulled off a remarkable comeback win thanks in large part to Ian Madigan’s two nerveless kicks.

Ulster couldn’t get into an attacking flow in the first half, looking nervy on the big occasion as Edinburgh defended well and completely negated the Irish province’s maul, but still there were hints of what was to come later in the game from McFarland’s men – even if the decision-making and execution were off.

Chance

Above, with penalty advantage playing, Louis Ludik has an opportunity to put the ball out in front of Jacob Stockdale in a bit of space wide on the right.

There’s certainly no major overlap and Edinburgh do have cover but it’s still a chance for Stockdale – a seriously dangerous attacking player – to make something happen. Instead, Ludik ducks back inside and looks for a low-percentage offload to Rob Lyttle.

JS

After the ball fails to go to hand, we can see Stockdale above speaking to Ludik, presumably indicating that it was worth shifting the penalty advantage wider.

Usually, Ulster are good at putting the ball into the space and allowing their best attacking players to create something and, when in real need in the second half, they did so accurately and skilfully – particularly amongst the forwards.

In the first half, as they failed to get into their flow, there were only four passes from Ulster forwards in open play.

In the second half, there were 18 passes from Ulster forwards.

While that was obviously partly down to Ulster having more possession in the middle third of the pitch, it was likely also a tactical tweak, or possibly even just a half-time reminder to the players of what this team is about and does so well.

Below, we see an example early in the second half as tighthead prop Tom O’Toole links out the back to give Billy Burns time to kick cross-field.

TOT

Unfortunately for Ulster, Burns’ kick goes straight into touch – and Edinburgh are soon down the other end scoring their second try – but we can see the shift from McFarland’s men.

Having gone down 12-0, Burns makes a huge play to keep them in the game, then we see more of the real Ulster as they back their passing to reach the right edge.

Right Edge

Burns ships a heavy tackle after getting the ball away under pressure from Rory Sutherland, as Kieran Treadwell runs the convincing front-door option outside of him, before James Hume, Stockdale, and Stuart McCloskey move the ball to energetic wing Rob Lyttle.

Again, it’s not a glaring chance but we see what happens when a team gives their most dangerous attackers a little time and space on the ball as Lyttle accelerates beyond Jaco van der Walt and offloads back inside to Stockdale.

Edinburgh are now stretched and scrambling, with fullback Blair Kinghorn conceding a penalty at the ensuing breakdown. Ulster miss the subsequent chance in the 22 but they strike to score after Chris Dean’s scrappy exit kick [white below].

Width

Lyttle, McCloskey, Marcell Coetzee, and Matty Rea are circled in red above and they will be key to the Ulster try that follows as they work downfield but crucially hold their width over on the right-hand side.

After receiving a pass from replacement fullback Michael Lowry in the backfield, Stockdale – now on the left wing – uses his power to beat a defender and make up ground.

Stock

Next, we see another of the Ulster forwards passing as Jack McGrath, only just on the pitch, plays the link to Burns this time.

Pass

This is pure Ulster – looking to strike back at Edinburgh with collective speed, rather than slowing the ball down and allowing themselves to recover shape and figure out what comes next. There is real intent here as McGrath passes out the back.

Burns moves the ball to Hume, whose excellent skip pass out in front of Coetzee suddenly sparks a real opportunity for Ulster against the very narrow Edinburgh defence.

Ulster’s work to hold their width when they moved back downfield is rewarded as Coetzee now has time on the ball with Lyttle outside and McCloskey on his inside.

It looks like Coetzee will simply pass the ball on to Lyttle but we see the comfort of another Ulster forward on the ball, even if the South African number eight is unique.

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He dummies an offload, draws in Duhan van der Merwe, fends, then releases the ball back inside to McCloskey.

Finish

Edinburgh out-half Jaco van der Walt has to bite in on McCloskey, who draws and passes to Lyttle on the outside, where the wing – relocated from the left to the right for the second half – shows his dancing footwork to bamboozle two Edinburgh forwards and fullback Kinghorn.

It’s a stunning Ulster try and even though they concede again soon after, going down 19-7, the growing belief in their attacking play is obvious.

Their maul – adapting to the brilliance of Edinburgh’s first-half defence by using a shift drive to negate the Scots’ earlier shoves towards the touchline – produces Ulster’s second score and then they come close to equalising after a clever lineout play from Peel’s playbook.

McCloskey carries directly on first phase…

1

… with Hume and – rather unusually – fullback Lowry following him to resource the breakdown.

Lowry being involved here is a hint at what’s to come but, before that, Ulster get around the corner and we see a nice tip-on pass from Treadwell to Sean Reidy, both of whom were superb off the bench.

Tip

This is the kind of skillset Soper has worked hard to improve in Ulster, with Treadwell’s tip-on allowing Reidy to punch over the gainline and make life much easier on the next phase, which sees Ulster bouncing back down the shortside.

They catch Edinburgh short on numbers as the backline show their passing skills again.

Handling

McGrath [white below] and replacement tighthead prop Marty Moore [red] run decoy lines close to the ruck after Treadwell and Alan O’Connor have cleared out.

Lines

Mathewson bounces back against the grain and passes behind McGrath to McCloskey, who has reloaded in the shortside along with Rea, Hume, Lowry and Lyttle.

As Rea runs a short line on his outside, McCloskey does a good job of slightly squaring up to pose a threat to van der Walt’s inside shoulder [yellow below] and holding him from jockeying out too early.

SM

The catch-pass skills by Hume under pressure from edge defender Nick Groom, and then the same from Lowry as he fixes Duhan van der Merwe, are very impressive and Lyttle finds himself in space again.

The right wing is tackled after stepping back inside. Ulster play infield for one phase before going back down the shortside, where there’s more sharp handling skill before Rea’s offload is just too low and Lyttle knocks on.

Knock

It’s another failure in the 22 from Ulster in a game which they had way too many of them, but their belief is now flowing and they continue to prod at an increasingly ill-disciplined and fatigued-looking Edinburgh team.

The crucial penalty comes after another tip-on pass, this time from Moore.

Pen

Again, we see the willingness of Ulster’s forwards to pass the ball, but this example does also highlight one of the dangers of the tip-on pass.

With Moore tackled out of the game just after passing, he’s not in a position to make it to the breakdown and Edinburgh’s Simon Berghan gets into a good jackal position here. However, tackler Grant Gilchrist has fallen on the wrong side of the tackle and impedes Treadwell’s access to the clearout, therefore conceding the penalty.

Ulster kick into the corner and, again, use a subtle shift drive at a very patient maul to manufacture the opportunity for sub hooker John Andrew to finish superbly.

Even in the final play, Ulster’s play features a forward passing the ball.

After Stockdale has brilliantly regained Mathewson’s box kick close to the left touchline, the easy thing for Ulster to do is grind through one-out carries with the aim of drawing another penalty.

Instead, McGrath makes another link pass and the Edinburgh defence makes an error.

Last Pen

It’s obviously simple stuff from McGrath here as he plays out the back of Andrew to Madigan, with Edinburgh’s Mike Willemse reading the pass, but the easier thing to do is slow the game down and carry straight into the Scots.

In this instance, Ulster’s desire to play with collective speed and comfort on the ball lure Willemse into an error that he instantly regrets.

Madigan takes care of the rest.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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