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Tom Maher/INPHO Ulster’s Duane Vermeulen.
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Ulster may finally get dream back row trio on the pitch this weekend
‘You want your best players playing. That’s one element of a blend. The other is how they compliment each other.’

IT IS TESTAMENT to the level that Ulster’s back row has performed to this season that it has almost been forgotten just how good Jordi Murphy was at the tail end of the 2020-21 season.

Alongside Nick Timoney, the former Ireland flanker was outstanding in leading the province to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup and was immovable from the openside jersey after a string of superb displays both in Europe and the tail end of the Pro14 season.

The frustration of how that campaign ended was compounded by a foot injury that ruled him out of the early part of this season, which then progressed to a knee problem that means he has not featured for Ulster since May.

They have filled the gap in their back row well so far, Timoney shifting to openside to accommodate Duane Vermeulen at No.8 and a combination of Greg Jones, David McCann and the Rea brothers Marcus and Matty deputising on the blindside.

But undoubtedly when the Ulster coaching staff brought Vermeulen in, the intention was for him to round off the back row alongside Murphy and Timoney. This week, when they travel to the Dragons on Sunday in the URC, they may finally see their dream trio on the pitch at the same time.

“You want all your players available to pick from,” concedes assistant coach Roddy Grant, who will also be happy to have lock Cormac Izuchukwu back in the fold after a lengthy injury lay-off as well.

“My philosophy, and certainly our philosophy as coaches here, in the back row is the blend. The way the game is now, that’s the way it’s going and you want your best players playing. That’s one element of a blend. The other is how they compliment each other.

“You see that with all teams across the board. As you know, you’re never going to have all your best players or combinations fit, so you make do as you go along.

“Hopefully if we can get that combination together, they haven’t played together, but it would be exciting if they did. If not, there’s plenty of other combinations.”

While those players who have been filling in have done an excellent job – Marcus Rea in particular, who has excelled in Europe and perhaps may take some shifting this week – there is an awareness that ex-Leinster man Murphy, with his international pedigree, brings something extra to the Ulster side.

He may not walk straight back into the team but, if he is selected on the weekend, the big question mark is fitness, with the 30-year-old likely to be unable to shoulder the burden of 80 minutes after just over nine months on the sidelines.

“On the pitch, he’s got an incredible work rate, skilful player, runs good lines, gets through a lot of work ball carrying, tackling. He’s good for a team, he plays with a lot of tempo and speed, and he’s a good line-out operator and we’ve used him in the past,” praises Grant.

“He’s good, and then you add in his experience which counts for a lot, and his leadership speaks for him, he’s very calm in big games. There’s a lot of strengths for him.

“Performance-wise, coming back, everyone is different. Some players are a bit more position-specific, so they need a bit more time. I’m sure he’ll be fine. A lot of the things are graded in training, so it’s not like he’s doing nothing. He’ll be okay.”

While thrilled that Murphy and Izuchukwu are available again, the coaching staff will likely have some more bittersweet emotions at seeing six players heading back up the M1 after being released from the Ireland camp for their trip to Rodney Parade.

Obviously delighted they will have the services of flanker Timoney, European Player of the Year nominee Mike Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Tom O’Toole and Kieran Treadwell this week, it’s also a frustrating recognition of how little Ulster have been represented in the national side to start the Six Nations.

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Of the sextet, only Hume has seen game time in the opening two games – a brief cameo with the game against Wales already well won – although Sunday’s trip to Newport could prove to be something of a proving ground for those given the chance to shine.

“Like always, you want to have the ability to select who you want out of your squad of players. That’s good for everyone, it’s good for competition, it’s good for the team,” reiterates Grant.

“They’ve been playing well, the guys who are in the Irish squad. They’ve been going well for Ulster, so they’re in good form themselves whether they’ve played for Ireland or not. They can’t control that; they can only control their performances for their team which they’ve done really well.

“For individuals as well, they want to be playing for Ireland, that’s their dream. If they don’t, I think in pro rugby – I certainly got it a lot – if you’re not playing or you’re injured, the average person would say ‘it’s fine, you’re still getting paid’. It’s not, it’s terrible, you’d rather not get paid but still play.

“Guys want to play, so that’s a good thing and a sign of a good group of guys. They want to play at the end of a week.”

Ireland legend Rob Kearney joined host Seán Burke, Murray Kinsella and Eimear Considine for the first episode of The Front Row, in partnership with Guinness. Rob speaks about his most euphoric moment in a green jersey, life after retirement, a “brutal” return to the GAA pitch, and his skincare routine. Click here to subscribe or listen below:

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