In the market

Ulster still looking to secure experienced out-half ahead of next season

Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne aren’t currently interested in moving to the northern province.

Updated at 09:10

JOEY CARBERY OR Ross Byrne may not be heading north next season, but Ulster remain in the market for an out-half as they look to finalise their squad ahead of the arrival of a new and as-yet-unannounced head coach.

With Paddy Jackson’s contract having been revoked, 21-year-old Johnny McPhillips has been thrust into the role of first-choice out-half for the province.

Ulster’s Johnny McPhillips McPhillips has done well this season. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

McPhillips has impressed and underlined his potential in recent weeks but Ulster are understandably keen to add greater experience and depth in the position as they look to bounce back from a tough season.

Highly-rated academy player Michael Lowry is another fine prospect at 10, while Ireland U20 centre Angus Curtis can also play out-half, though they are both still developing.

To put it bluntly, Ulster have lost the player the province was tactically built around in Paddy Jackson – a proven international out-half they had invested hugely in and who, at 26, would have run the show on the pitch for them for at least five more years.

There is now a huge gap in their squad.

As such, Ulster have been trawling the rugby world for an out-half, with the likes of Danny Cipriani and Stephen Myler among the many names linked with a move to the northern province.

The IRFU were hopeful that one of Carbery or Byrne would shift up to Ulster from Leinster ahead of next season, but neither player is currently keen on the prospect.

With nothing confirmed on the out-half front just yet, Ulster remain on the hunt.

“You have got to get a good balance between an experienced guy in there who can help guys around him,” said Ulster’s operations director Bryn Cunningham after their draw with Munster on Saturday ended the province’s Pro14 play-off hopes.

“Not necessarily just the 10s, but maybe the nines inside him and the 12s outside him. It’s obviously going to be really beneficial for a squad. You want to be able to rotate as well – you don’t want a guy coming in and blocking the future of these guys.

Bryn Cunningham Cunningham is in charge of Ulster's recruitment and contracting. Matt Mackey / Press Eye Matt Mackey / Press Eye / Press Eye

“There is a lot of thinking that goes into that to make sure that they [the younger players] have got the relevant game time, that they can continue to develop, but you have got to get a balance to that.

“You don’t want to throw them in and have them play 20 games a season, which can be pretty demanding on a young kid coming through.”

With Ulster looking at signing a non-Irish-qualified [NIQ] out-half, the IRFU will naturally be involved, explaining how the Carbery/Byrne situation arose.

Cunningham said there are always discussions with the union at these times, with the IRFU keen to ensure Irish-qualified talent has the opportunity to gain experience at provincial level.

“At the moment, the IRFU are working in that area with Leinster around that 10 scenario,” said Cunningham. “We are not really involved in that. There are two sides to anybody moving within the Irish system.

“There’s what’s right for the player and him wanting to go and get more game time. And there’s potentially a player being brought up in his province, thinking ‘I love this province and I want to stay in this province.’

“They want to stay there for different reasons as well. On things like that, it’s a little bit outside our control. We will just sit back and see what the outcome of that is. Then we can assess whether we need to go in a different position or not.”

Cunningham’s assertion that Ulster “are not really involved” in the Carbery/Byrne business is interesting – surely they should be attempting to convince the players that Ulster represents an ideal opportunity?

“In something like that it’s very much just a decision that’s taken from the player whenever the IRFU has got involved in it,” said Cunningham. “They have looked at it and decided that those guys are probably in the top three or four 10s in Irish rugby.

Joey Carbery Carbery isn't currently interested in a move to Ulster. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

“They have looked at it and said it might be more beneficial if one of them was playing elsewhere, but it’s not really for us to go in and initiate that conversation. We have to respect that the players may be in a different place.

“And they decided that they want to stay where they are. For us, it’s more about if a player shows a genuine interest and the player is very keen and the player then wants to speak to the province.

“That’s whenever we would come to the fore and try and convince him that Ulster is a good place to come.”

Cunningham stressed that Ulster are excited about the potential of McPhillips – who is “starting to develop more” – Curtis and Lowry, who is “a gifted footballer” with “a good rugby brain on him.”

But if Ulster want to compete for trophies, backing the kids to deliver is an obvious risk.

With Charles Piutau leaving for Bristol, Ulster have a decent chunk of their wage budget coming back into play, although Cunningham points out that the province has also “dropped a few national contracts”.

The return from injury of South African back row Marcell Coetzee next season should be a huge boost if he can stay fit, but Ulster are also open to the possibility of bringing in more NIQ talent.

“We are looking at everything,” said Cunningham. “We are not looking at it and going, ‘Right, we have four spaces available and we will use all four.’ We are going to look at it in terms of what our needs are right now, what we are trying to build for next season financially, as well where we are.

“We are very much looking at what we have coming through, not making any knee-jerk reactions and signing somebody for the sake of it. It’s very important to us that our NIQs are right and they make a big impact.

“We’ve been unfortunate this year with a couple of injuries. We want to make sure that if we go down the route, we do it the right way. We are keeping our options open at the moment.”

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