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'These youngsters are at a time when they believe they are invincible'

Ulster boss Dan McFarland was delighted with his young backline’s impact against Northampton.

Mike Lowry starred for Ulster against Saints.
Mike Lowry starred for Ulster against Saints.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IF YOU WANTED a sense of how bright Ulster’s future looks in their backline, then you needed to look no further than Franklin’s Gardens on Sunday afternoon.

Another man-of-the-match performance featuring two tries from full-back for 23-year-old Mike Lowry, a try and an assist from 24-year-old Robert Baloucoune and a try on his first European start for 20-year-old scrum-half Nathan Doak is only to mention those who scored in the 24-20 win over Northampton.

In the centre, 22-year-old Stewart Moore and 23-year-old James Hume paired together perfectly for a superb partnership. On the opposite wing, he didn’t get on the scoresheet but 21-year-old Ethan McIlroy had another strong outing and has developed remarkably quickly into a consistently reliable option on the left wing.

With a starting backline boasting an average age of just 22.89 years old, and with 20-year-old Ben Moxham unused on the bench, this is a team not just for the future, but they proved in their 24-20 win over the Saints that it is one for the present, too.

“These youngsters are at a time in their career when they believe they are invincible and they are able to produce some magic moments,” head coach Dan McFarland told BT Sport immediately after the game.

The most pleasing aspect for the coaching staff will be how well the backline gelled together, particularly in the back three, and it was through them that they scored all four of their tries on their way to a bonus point.

An inside break from Moore eventually led to the first for Baloucoune; off turnover ball, Lowry fed Baloucoune who then sent over Doak for the second; Billy Burns’ chip kick for Moore resulted in Lowry’s first; and then a lovely flowing move that saw Baloucoune find McIlroy with an offload for him to then release Lowry for his second was the best of the lot.

The confidence exhibited by a group of players who, in some cases, aren’t even three years out of playing Schools’ Cup rugby only bodes well for the future for Ulster, even though they’re already more than good enough for the present.

“Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got a long way to go, these guys are far from the finished article and they’ll get much, much better and they’ll get that through experience,” warned McFarland, expanding in his post-game media duties.

robert-baloucoune-and-stewart-moore-celebrate-after-the-game Robert Baloucoune and Stewart Moore. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“But in terms of the talent they have and the desire to improve on a week-to-week basis is very exciting.

“Do I think they don’t get the credit they deserve? Well, Mikey Lowry’s the man of the match, everyone’s talking about how good Robert Baloucoune is. Rob’s been recognised by Andy Farrell, Mikey Lowry’s in that conversation – I’ve chatted to Andy about Ethan McIlroy and how good he is.

“Obviously Rob got some of the plaudits tonight and Mikey got man of the match, but Ethan has been absolutely tremendous for us. He’s a really smart rugby player who’s got one of the most deadly side-steps that certainly I’ve seen within our squad.

“They’re just really good players. And obviously James Hume has been producing big performances in big games and I thought Stew Moore played very well tonight. I thought he had a really good game in what are huge boots that Stuart McCloskey left for him in the changing room.”

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Four tries and five points on the board means Ulster sit alongside Racing 92 atop Pool A and are safely into the knock-outs of the Heineken Champions Cup with a round to spare. Should they beat Clermont at Kingspan Stadium next week, they will have home advantage in the second leg of their last-16 tie to look forward to.

As well as that, they add Franklin’s Gardens to the list of difficult away venues they have conquered in the last two-and-a-half months alone, a far cry from last season when they tamely surrendered results from winning positions at Kingsholm and Welford Road in a disastrous European campaign in both the Champions and Challenge Cup.

While there is no doubt they are continuing to improve from a playing perspective, the road wins they are collating is a reflection of how far this Ulster team have progressed this season on the mental side of the game. While this win perhaps wasn’t as tight as Leinster or Clermont, it was still another one to add to the copybook.

“The two teams that we’ve been matched up against are quality teams. Northampton took this tournament seriously and have some of the best attacking firepower you will see on a week-to-week basis. I don’t underestimate the challenge of playing Northampton,” added McFarland.

“Winning away from home in Europe, unless you get one of the French teams who give up, it’s really, really difficult. I’m very proud of the effort and the skill from us tonight.”

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