Ulster recorded a first ever European Cup triumph for Irish provinces in 1999, but the men from the North no longer dine at the top table in Europe. Can they spring a surprise and replicate that victory this season?
It’s hard to escape the feeling Ulster’s chances of success, both in Europe and domestically, has sailed away. After pumping money into the squad at the beginning of the decade, the Ulstermen appeared to be trying to guarantee short-term success by signing proven performers such as John Afoa, Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, Nick Williams and re-signing Tommy Bowe from the Ospreys.
Despite making a European final (2011/12) and a Pro12 final (2012/13), they have remained trophyless since 2006. In light of this, the approach has changed in recent seasons, and Ulster have been looking to grow from within rather than drafting in expensive overseas talent on a yearly basis.
Plenty of young home-grown players have been given their chances in the opening rounds of the Pro12 this season, and as one would expect with younger players finding their way in the game, the results and performances have been mixed. With four wins from seven outings, Ulster sit 5th in their domestic league, but faced with a daunting pool in Europe, they will need to find more consistency on a week-to-week basis to be relevant.
Reasons to be Cheerful:
They seem thin on the ground this season for Ulster. The northern province didn’t invest in any front line players this off-season, but have instead shaken thing up amongst the coaching staff. After six years as an assistant coach with Ireland, Les Kiss will sit into the Ulster hot seat in what is the first assignment of his career as the main man. The hope around Ulster is that the squad will be buoyed and rejuvenated by a new voice in the dressing room, especially one with such an abundance of rugby knowledge.
A major positive for Kiss is the experienced nucleus of the dressing room he has taken over. Thanks to his lengthy involvement with Ireland, Ulster’s key players such as Rory Best, Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble and the injured Bowe are all aware of Kiss’ coaching ability.
The Australian is a highly regarded defence coach and the first thing he will be looking to do is consolidate the northern province’s defence and make them difficult to break down. No team has gained a try-scoring bonus point more regularly than Ulster this season (four times in seven games). If Kiss can compliment this potent attack with a stingy defence, Ulster may have a chance of progression.
Reasons to be Fearful:
As if the pool draw wasn’t difficult enough for Ulster, facing two French teams in the form of a rejuvenated Toulouse and Oyonnax and proven European performers Saracens, the scheduling of fixtures has made the task even taller.
Oyonnax aren’t expected to threaten the quarter-final spots, but Ulster will receive no favours when they travel to France to meet the European newcomers on the opening weekend. The prime objective for the French side will be to retain their Top 14 status, but given this is their debut campaign amongst Europe’s elite they will be looking for a scalp at home and Ulster look like the best target in this regard.
After the trip to France, Ulster host consecutive games at Ravenhill, firstly against Saracens before the first leg of the December double-header against Toulouse. Of all three pool rivals, the English champions will find it easiest to travel to Belfast and if Ulster don’t win at least one of their opening two games their European dreams will be dashed before the midway point.
Playing the top two teams in the pool during the first half of the campaign puts an enormous amount of pressure on Ulster to get the results to keep their tournament alive.
Ruan Pienaar. The veteran South African scrum half had a disappointing World Cup from a personal point of view, the 31-year-old started the opening game of the competition against Japan but didn’t start again until the dead rubber bronze medal clash against Argentina on the final weekend.
There will be no fear of Pienaar losing his starting spot for Ulster, however. In a backline that will be deprived of internationals Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall and Jared Payne due to injury, Pienaar will be by far the province’s most experienced player across the back line.
Pienaar’s kicking game, from hand and from the tee, will also take the pressure off out half Paddy Jackson, who seems to struggle when having to combine kicking duties and his role as a playmaker. Ulster pulled off something of a coup last season when they managed to convince the Springbok to extend his contract in the province, as a number of wealthy French clubs were lurking in the background.
That re-signing has become all the more important in light of the injuries picked up by the aforementioned Irish trio in the opening months of the season.
One to Watch:
Craig Gilroy. It’s been a stop-start career to date for the 24-year-old winger. Gilroy has routinely produced great runs of form for Ulster, only to be derailed by injury or lose his place in an extremely competitive back three due to a couple of disappointing showings.
Having debuted in 2010 and with over 100 appearances for his province, and six Irish caps, he’s no unknown quantity, but after a blistering start to the season, in which he’s joint-top of the Pro12 scoring charts, with four tries, he’s very much back in the public conscious.
There is no shortage of quality wingers currently available to Ireland, but with Tommy Bowe ruled out well into the near year, Gilroy will have an excellent opportunity to play a lot of matches, uninterrupted, at the highest level in Europe.
With an average of a try every three games for Ulster and Ireland, he will need to maintain – if not improve – this ratio to give Ulster a fighting chance.
Oyonnax (A), Saracens (H), Toulouse (H), Toulouse (A), Saracens (A), Oyonnax (H).
In a very tough pool, there won’t be much for Ulster’s fans to get excited by. And an inconsistent start to season won’t have filled the fans with confidence, ahead of a pool they will need to hit the ground running in to have any chance of progression.
Missing so many keys backs doesn’t help, and the arrival of Les Kiss in just the last couple weeks means it’s unlikely his ideas will seep through to players in time to affect their first two games.
Ulster are set for a third place pool finish, which will mean no knockout rugby for a second straight season.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena