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5 big questions for Ulster ahead of the new rugby season

So much change means very little is certain for the northern province.

Start of a new cycle

WE’LL MENTION CHANGE plenty of times in the next four points, but it really does deserve some space on its own to be accounted for.

There was a sense from the squad last term that, after a long process of building, factors had finally come into place that would bring them to a title.

Many of those factors have now left Belfast. And when you add in the new Kingspan Stadium (which will hopefully bring more luck than the redeveloped Ravenhill did last season) Ulster almost feels like a club starting completely afresh.

Of course, some of the personnel who drove the success are staying put, so this clean slate may be just what’s needed to power on to the next level.

Tight five

The retirements of Paddy Wallace and Stephen Ferris were bad news, but as the team had coped without them for the majority of their recent history, it won’t make for any immediate change.

What will be in for a test is Ulster’s tight five. Johann Muller joined the rank of former greats to ensure a greater onus will be on Iain Henderson this season. Meanwhile Andrew Warwick and Wiehahn Herbst have boots to fill after Tom Court and John Afoa headed for the Premiership.

GloucesterÕs John Afoa Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Ulster’s scrum, along with the carrying threat from two mobile props (in particular the all-action Afoa) was a central tenet to their game in recent years and the new look coalface will provide a very different threat this year.

Coaching upheaval

Player power can work wonders in uniting a group, reinforcing the theory that they are putting bodies on the line for a single collective purpose. Sometimes, though, it can go a little bit awry.

Whatever negative traits senior Ulster players seen in Mark Anscombe it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is a team that could really benefit with some strong leadership coming from the top.

The loss of David Humphreys before Anscombe means that the steady structure behind so much of the northern province’s recent rise to prominence has been demolished.

If the ticket of Neil Doak, Jonny Bell, Allen Clarke and Les Kiss prove successful, Doak could well earn a promotion to the top job. If it’s rough going between now and Christmas though, how long will it be before CEO Shane Logan finds a permanent head coach?

Kiss of life?

Ulster players have expressed a huge amount of enthusiasm for the energy Les Kiss has brought to training in Belfast.

Les Kiss Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Australian has the benefit of being Joe Schmidt’s right-hand man. So although he is a specialist defence coach, the fresh eyes on Ulster’s problem with converting try-scoring chances at crucial moments gives supporters hope of seeing a more clinical edge.

As we alluded above, the issue for the interim director of rugby will be how long he is asked to double job. November will tell us a lot about what effect the arrangement is having on both Ulster and Ireland.

The Payne drain

While the revolving door of a rugby transfer window left Ulster looking a little weaker up front, there are few issues to pick on behind the scrum.

The back-line remains a fearsome prospect, but only if they can get a balance right.

Jared Payne is now Irish-qualified and, as you may have heard, there’s a vacancy in the Irish 13 jersey. With that in mind, we’ll start the season by assuming Payne, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble will be immovable as Ulster’s centre and wingers.

Filling the spaces around them is a much more difficult equation. Fullback will surely be weakened for the removal of Payne, as he  proved massively successful in play-making and counter-attacking since arriving in Belfast.

Jared Payne Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Only die-hard fans of Pro Div2 will know if new recruit Louis Ludik is going to be a success at 15. Craig Gilroy was tested in the role a great deal last season and Stuart Olding is an exciting attacker from any position; he could well find his home there as the inside centre channel becomes more crowded.

Darren Cave has been a stalwart performer for Ulster over the past seven years, but as he has been slowly sized up for a role at inside centre to accommodate Payne.

There will be injuries and dips in form along the way, but if everyone’s available keeping that back-line happy and match-hardened will be no easy task.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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