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Cooney's try the latest example of the Ulster forwards' ever-improving skills

Dan Soper, formerly an AIL coach with Ballynahinch and Banbridge, is having a big impact.

ULSTER LEFT CLERMONT-Ferrand with plenty of frustrations last weekend, but among the more encouraging aspects of their defeat in the Champions Cup was the slick first-half try finished by John Cooney.

This score saw the scrum-half continue his remarkable run of tries this season but it was more about the handling ability of Ulster’s forwards.

Jack McGrath’s sharp inside pass sent Sean Reidy thundering into space before he offloaded to the supporting Marty Moore, who teed Cooney up to finish. 

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Loosehead to blindside to tighthead to scrum-half – it’s the kind of string of passing and offloading Ulster have been constantly pushing for under head coach Dan McFarland since he arrived in 2018.

“Some of our interplay in our pods off nine was pretty good,” says Ulster second row Alan O’Connor of last weekend’s display.

“Obviously, for Cooney’s try, that was really good interplay between two props and then Reidy in there as well, which has been a good feature of our forward play this year.”

Indeed, the passing from Ulster’s forwards has been a distinctive aspect of their play over the past two seasons and this try was a particularly excellent and effective example of it.

Ulster operate with a basic 1-3-3-1 shape in attack, those numbers signifying how their eight forwards are spread across the pitch when they’re in possession. This score features all three of the players in the first ’3′ getting onto the ball to set Cooney up.

1

Above, we can see that Reidy [red], McGrath [white], and Moore [yellow] make up the three-man pod operating off Cooney’s pass from the ruck.

Importantly, we can see Billy Burns in behind McGrath, offering him the chance to swivel and pass out the back door – another threat for the Clermont defenders to worry about.

But McGrath senses the opportunity back on his inside. Clermont tighthead Rabah Slimani [yellow below] is concerned with the tip-on pass outside to Moore and has initially aligns himself with his opposite number.

2

McGrath has come forward to fix Clermont flanker Alexandre Lapandry [white above] into tackling him.

And with Clermont centre Georg Moala [red above] having briefly switched off to the possibility of McGrath passing back inside, rather than hunting across, the space is clear as Reidy bursts onto the pass on an excellent running line.

Moala isn’t able to react to make a strong hit onto Reidy, meaning the Ulster flanker can get his hand free for the offload to Moore, who has continued upfield on an ideal support line.

3

Moore then does a good job of running straight to fix Clermont fullback Nick Abendanon [yellow below], preserving the space for Cooney [blue] – alert on the inside support line to beat Clermont’s reacting defenders – to run into.

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It’s poor defence from Clermont to be beaten so close to the ruck but Ulster will have taken great satisfaction from their forwards creating a try in this manner.

Those who have been watching them under McFarland will be familiar these kinds of inside passes and tip-on passes by forwards, with the Ulster coaching staff encouraging them to use their ever-developing handling and decision-making skills.

A key appointment in this regard for Ulster was skills coach Dan Soper, who also joined in 2018.

A native of New Zealand who has been in Ireland since 1998, Soper developed an excellent reputation in the All-Ireland League with Ballynahinch and Banbridge, as well as enjoying great success as director of rugby at RBAI in the schools game.

Soper has an influence on the entire Ulster squad, with the improvement of their forwards’ skills providing a clear example. His technical focus fits in ideally with attack coach Dwayne Peel’s ideas and McFarland’s overall philosophy.

ulsters-skills-coach-dan-soper Skills coach Dan Soper is an important part of the Ulster set-up. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Dan has come in over the last two years and he’s been great,” says O’Connor. “Down the gym, you’d always have a ball maybe mixed in with a weights session and stuff like that. We want to play with collective speed and moving the ball is part of that.

“It’s about making sure that we’re quick getting into position so we can play those tips and so boys are running the right lines.

“It’s not just the passing, it’s the process before the pass that’s getting really good at the moment, our speed into set and our lines of running.”

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Murray Kinsella

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