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'This isn't about those guys coming up the road. This is more about what Ulster are producing'

Stephen Ferris pulled no punches when it came to his native province on this week’s Rugby Weekly Extra.

Ulster's lineup against Leicester.
Ulster's lineup against Leicester.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

STEPHEN FERRIS DOESN’T believe Ulster can “kick on and win European Cups”, or indeed Pro14 titles, until the northern province begins to churn out a higher calibre of player through its academy system.

The former Ulster, Ireland and Lions back row told Gavan Casey on this week’s Rugby Weekly Extra for The42 members that he doesn’t think there is enough strength and depth in the province to bring Dan McFarland’s side to the next level, this following their Challenge Cup semi-final defeat to Leicester Tigers last weekend.

After first trying to get to the bottom of why Ulster couldn’t “stop the rot” when Leicester gained a foothold in what would transpire to be a Tigers-dominated second half, Ferris turned his attention from shortcomings on the field to deficiencies on a more macro level.

He stressed that his issue lay not with Ulster’s recruited players from other provinces or countries, but with the fact that so many of their services are required in the first place due to what he perceives to be a dearth of emerging talent in key positions.

“The harsh reality is I don’t believe they’re going to kick on and win European Cups, like,” Ferris told The42 members.

“You have a sub loosehead prop, Andy Warwick, who doesn’t have big-game nous; you have Tom O’Toole, so much hype and smoke blown up his backside by lots of people throughout the IRFU, third-choice prop in Ireland. Flip, come on here, like! This is big-boy stuff now, this isn’t Ulster ‘A’ games we’re talking about. Ellis Genge, who isn’t renowned for being an unbelievable scrummager, got stuck into Marty Moore and there were a couple of scrums where they annihilated Ulster.

“We don’t have a recognised born-and-bred Ulster tighthead coming through the ranks. Take Iain Henderson out of the second row and you’ve got Alan O’Connor and Kieran Treadwell — Kieran Treadwell obviously an English-born guy who’s played for Ireland. He came through the Harlequins academy, he wasn’t good enough to make it at Harlequins, but he’s good enough to come over to Ireland — and he has played reasonably well.

“Something I notice a lot about the Ulster players, the likes of Treadwell, is that they get man-of-the-match performances a lot against the likes of Zebre at home; the likes of Tom O’Toole, he comes on and he makes a great impact against Dragons at home; and the next thing, they get thrown into a big game, or a game against some players that have international experience — the likes of Genge, the likes of Dan Cole…and I just don’t think the strength and depth is good enough in Ulster Rugby to go on and win European titles. I don’t think it’s good enough to win Pro14 titles, either.

iain-henderson Ulster were unable to stop the rot once the tide turned at Welford Road, says Ferris. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“And that’s something that Dan McFarland has got to try and figure out,” Ferris continued.

I’ve looked at plenty of teamsheets over the last few years, especially Ulster teamsheets, and there have been two or three guys that have come through the Ulster academy, that have come through the Ulster schools system, who are playing for Ulster. And the rest of the guys are Tom O’Toole, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor; the whole back row — Jordi Murphy, Marcel Coetzee and Nick Timoney; John Cooney, Billy Burns — there’s about 10 of the starting team that are not from Ulster, like.

“I know the game is changing a lot and with players, I don’t think there’s any loyalty anymore with the way the game has become more of a business,” Ferris continued.

And if I was a player? I would be exactly the same. Don’t get me wrong, here. I’m not saying that the likes of Jordi Murphy should be staying at Leinster and trying to battle through and trying to get back into the starting team. No way. Lots of these decisions are business decisions as well, family decisions. There are lots of mouths to feed and fair play to those guys for doing it.

“This isn’t about those guys coming up the road,” Ferris insisted. “This is more about what Ulster are producing to try and win those European Cups in the future, to try and get to those Pro14 finals once again, and in my opinion, they’re not producing them.

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nathan-doak Nathan Doak scoring for Ulster 'A' against Munster 'A' at Energia Park in January. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“There’s young Nathan Doak, Neil Doak’s son; 18, 19 years of age, straight out of school, everyone’s talking about him: ‘He’s the next Ruaan Pienaar, he’s the same height, very athletic, reads the game so well, he’s been a ball-boy since five years of age watching Ulster playing rugby.’ And there’s talk coming out of the Ulster camp that this young fella has to go and earn his stripes first before he can represent [Ulster] on the big stage. And you’re going, ‘What?’ If he was playing for Leinster or playing for Saracens, he’d be in, he’d be getting game experience, they’d be seeing what he’s like under pressure.

“These are young fellas who are chomping at the bit to represent Ulster more frequently and they’re sort of being held back.

“Now, it’s going to be very intriguing to see what the teamsheets are like over the next four or five weeks in the upcoming rounds of the Rainbow Cup. I know Dan [McFarland] alluded to lots of change in his interview after the game against Leicester, so maybe we will see more of these guys coming through.

“But there needs to be more coming through this Ulster academy for Ulster to be successful in the future.”

To hear the full show, and to listen to Murray Kinsella and Eoin Toolan every week upon their respective returns, join The42 at members.the42.ie for €5 per month or €42 for an annual subscription.

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