Dublin: 16°C Monday 27 June 2022

Your big rugby season preview: Ulster

We kick off our province by province previews with last year’s Pro12 runner-up.

Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

The Story so far

THE FIRST HALF of last season was a perfect lesson in how on-field matters can be a world away from the real world

The death of Nevin Spence shook the province of Ulster to its core, yet it came at the beginning stages of an astounding, perhaps fitting, 13-game winning streak.

The 13th step in that run was probably their finest, a bonus point away win over Northampton in the Heineken Cup.

By the return fixture, however, they appeared to have run out of steam. Home defeat combined with a knee injury to Tommy Bowe set them on course for an away quarter-final and another loss at Twickenham. There was another final defeat too, again to Leinster, this time in the RaboDirect Pro12.

Ulster players and staff will rightly point to the many positives despite the trophyless season: they won in Dublin to push them to the Pro12’s summit, they won in France for the first time and, due to injury, their academy gems in the shape of Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding stepped up in their development a year or two early.

However, Ulster have come too close to glory in the past two years to be content with their lot.

Best try of last season

This Andrew Trimble effort against Connacht in April was good enough to be judged Try of the Season, so who are we to argue?

YouTube credit: RaboDirect PRO12

What’s changed?

Big-name signings have been notable by their absence at Ulster this summer. Instead they’ve dipped into England’s lower divisions for recruits to deepen the strength in their ranks.

Irish-qualified Kiwi tighthead Bronson Ross comes in from Coventry. James McKinney (who impressed as an Irish U20 out-half) is recalled after a spell with the Rotherham Titans – who have taken Ali Birch on to keep up their Ulster quota. From the Championship, exciting utility back David McIlwaine is also welcomed home after spells with Bristol and Doncaster.

McKinney and McIlwaine are like for like replacements for Niall O’Connor, who goes to Jersey, and Adam Darcy who has headed back to Australia and Manly. Nigel Brady has joined the Ulster influx at Jeremy Davidson’s Aurillac.

Big questions

Haymaker: Last season, injuries allowed youth to flourish in the shape of Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding. This year, Ulster go in with Tommy Bowe feeling the ill effects of rushing back from a hand injury and Stephen Ferris keeping everybody concerned.

imageFerris at Ulster’s open training session in July. ©INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

The island’s best back row has been given a six-month contract to prove his fitness. Amid hefty rumours that he would head for Japan at the end of his last deal, it’s anybody’s guess what happens if Christmas should come and go without Ferris’ on an Ulster team-sheet.

Playmaker: While there is plenty of competition for the shirt left open by Ferris, the same can’t really be said of Paddy Jackson.

Leinster and Connacht each cast their net abroad to bring in a an experienced number 10 in the last two summers, but if Jackson is recalled to Irish squads under Joe Schmidt, or if he suffers an injury, Anscombe will be looking a  alrge drop down to either Ruan Pienaar or the less experienced options of Olding and McKinney.

Predicted finish

In the Pro12, they can’t exactly hope for much better than top spot. To get back in the play-offs this time around they will have to come through what is arguably the toughest season’s run-in of any side.

Exclusive NZ - IRE
Rugby Analysis

Get Murray Kinsella's match analysis and Garry Doyle's updates from New Zealand exclusive to members

Become a Member

The northern province’s final four games consist of home inter-pros with Leinster and Connacht and away trips to Munster and Glasgow, three out of the four will almost certainly be in the hunt for a play-off berth themselves.

image©INPHO/James Crombie

Getting tanked by Leicester in Welford Road on Saturday won’t do much for their confidence of pushing past the Tigers in round six of their Heineken Cup pool early next year. And they can count themselves unlucky that, having won for the first time in France last year, they will head to Montpellier in round two this time. They’ll hardly have thrown their chapeau at it by then, will they?

Throw Treviso into that mix and escaping the group looks a tall order, never mind a home quarter-final.

Pro12: Top four.

Heineken Cup: quarter-finals.

Strongest XV: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, L Marshall, A Trimble; P Jackson, R Pienaar: T Court, R Best, J Afoa; J Muller, I Henderson; R Diack*, C Henry, N Williams.

Joe Schmidt: No grudge with Paulie over Kearney kick

Henshaw’s rise no surprise to sidelined Duffy

*Obviously a fit Stephen Ferris will trump almost anybody in this position.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

Read next: