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Opinion: Ireland call-ups and lack of signings to hobble Ulster's title ambitions

The province’s emergence as league and Heineken Cup contenders will stretch Mark Anscombe’s squad this season.

Paddy Jackson is hauled back by Isa Nacewa of Leinster.
Paddy Jackson is hauled back by Isa Nacewa of Leinster.
Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

CHRIS HENRY TOLD TheScore.ie before Ireland’s summer tour the manner of Ulster’s Pro12 Final defeat to Leinster was ‘even more heartbreaking’ than their Heineken Cup loss to the Blues the season before.

The flanker was gutted as his team came up short at the RDS [their designated home venue] against a Leinster side saying goodbye to a coach and nine players. He reasoned that the 42-14 whitewash in the 2012 European Cup did not sting as much as they knew they were beaten by a better side.

Ulster beat Leinster twice in the Pro12 last season, including a first win since 1999 in Dublin, but came up short in the Grand Final, just when it mattered.

Of the four teams that competed in the Pro12 semi-finals, Leinster have been the busiest. They brought in three senior players and promoted nine from their Academy ranks to cover for the departures of Jonny Sexton, Heinke van der Merwe, Isa Nacewa and more. Scarlets lost George North to Northampton and Glasgow Warriors saw Graeme Morrison and Rory Lamont retire.

Ulster have been the least active of the four. Five players have moved on with three coming in for 2013/14. James McKinney returns to the province from his stint in Rotherham and will be outhalf back-up for Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar, the genius Springbok scrumhalf/outhalf, now that Niall O’Connor is in Jersey.

Coach Mark Anscombe may be happy with his current crop of players but, with further signings unlikely, Ulster may struggle to repeat the feats of the last two excellent seasons.

Anscombe looking pretty darn cool at Ulster’s pre-season training session in Donegal. (©INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry)

Ruan Pienaar will be away with South Africa  until late September as they compete in the Rugby Championship. It is unlikely that Ulster fans will see him until October. For the second season running, that will leave Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson starting the majority of the province’s league games.

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Prop Bronson Ross arrives from New Zealand, via Coventry, and is on a developmental contract. Bringing in an unproven 27-year-old tighthead is a gamble but Declan Fitzpatrick’s injury woes show no signs of abating and he may see some action early and often. Rory Best had a torrid time of it with the Lions in Australia and will hope to rediscover his lineout radar.

Stephen Ferris has opted against a relaxed playing schedule in Japan’s Top League but faces a pivotal six months in his rugby career. All thoughts of Ireland and big Heineken Cup games will be far from his mind as he desperately seeks fitness, league games and an injury-free run.

Ferris is ploughing a lonely comeback furrow. (©INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry)

Roger Wilson will be hoping to build on a solid return to Ravenhill last season, Henry is fresh off the best season of his career and Nick Williams surpassed all expectations in a phenomenal first season with the province. In the second-row, Iain Henderson may see more game time there this season as he learns the trade from the wily Johann Muller.

The Ulster backline looks the strongest of all the Irish provinces and of the league with Jared Payne edging ever closer to an eventual Ireland debut at fullback when the Kiwi becomes internationally qualified. Andrew Trimble had his best season to date and is back in the international mix while Tommy Bowe, like Best, returns a Lions Series winner.

Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy had breakthrough seasons for Ireland but injuries took their toll on both men. Stuart Olding arrived like a whirlwind at inside centre and made his Ireland debut during the summer.

The success of the Ulster backs means that as many as seven could feature in Ireland’s squads for the November internationals and the Six Nations.

Ulster may well beat Leinster again when they take them on at Ravenhill in a pre-season friendly on 23 August but the lack of summer signings to cover the emerged international stars may well see them finish second best again.

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About the author:

Patrick McCarry

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