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News

Shifting Focus

by UAFC Editor on Thu Jul 05, 2012 7:39 pm
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  • 1 vote
(1 vote)


Barry Ireland looks at the hopes and expectations for Ulster Rugby moving toward next season

Shane Logan, Ulster CEO, November 2009: ‘Whatever plan we put together has to deliver Ulster being top of the pile in Ireland, Europe and indeed the world.’


It is perhaps against this kind of audacious ambition that Shane Logan was measuring progress when he recently told the Ulster Rugby Supporters Club that his mark for the season past was 8/10 in Europe, but just 5/10 in the league.

Against the backdrop of a single Heineken Cup quarter-final in a dozen years, even the most die-hard Ulster fan could not have realistically expected a run to the final so soon in this development phase. Certainly the powers that be at Ulster Branch could not have been anticipating so deep an incursion into Europe’s top competition when they decided after half a season that the Head Coach, who subsequently navigated a remarkable journey against the odds, would be cast aside, but it ought to offer some comfort to learn that those who strategise at the forefront of the province both hope for and expect total success.

In truth, no one has really prioritised the RaboDirect Pro12, certainly not in a meaningful way. Whilst it is disappointing that Ulster failed to achieve a play-off spot, set against a catalogue of mighty European performances, most fans would agree that it has been largely inconsequential.

Much as we like to point to five Irish Heineken Cup successes in seven seasons, and a recent all-Ireland final, as evidence that rugby in Ireland is ahead of the rest of Europe, the scant return of the national side in the same period speaks strongly against this. It may be overstated in the British media, and although the relatively poor European record of the Scottish, and particularly the Welsh regions offers some counter-argument, the RaboDirect Pro12 league has been largely a preparation ground for participating teams to maximize optimal performance in the Heineken Cup. The teams successful in Europe often also head the league, but they are not facing opponents who are week-in, week-out, fighting for their Heineken Cup lives. There can be little argument that the participating teams have some advantage over English and French clubs in preparing for Europe thanks to automatic qualification (although whether English or French clubs have a right to feel aggrieved by or get involved in how other countries manage and set their priorities is another matter).

But the landscape is changing. In a classic ‘toys thrown from the pram’ move, the English and French elite have acted against the prolonged Irish European dominance by forcing through a proposal that Heineken Cup qualification be dictated by final league position for the top six RaboDirect Pro 12 teams, with all automatic national qualification scrapped. Although it still has to be officially agreed, the direction of travel seems clear.

Simply put, Ulster must soon learn to battle hard and succeed on two fronts. Qualification for the Heineken Cup is a necessity, and although any format changes are likely to be at least three seasons away, the time to ingrain a culture of league achievement is now. The task will be to continue the European renaissance with simultaneous domestic league excellence.

To battle and succeed on two fronts, strength in depth becomes crucial, particularly when the battle will be with similar clubs, hell-bent on their own European qualification (which incidentally calls into question the wisdom behind the timing of the new IRFU transfer policy on foreign players). The tight five can boast strength in spades, but there remain concerns over the key 6-10 channels, with both the back row and half backs potentially strong in first choice, but struggling in depth. For the back row, the loss of the ever-present Pedrie Wannenburg will test the depth of resources throughout the season. In the half backs, the importance of an experienced and proven game manager at ten, at this moment for this team, cannot be overstated.

When you rhyme off names like Afoa, Best, Muller, Ferris, Pienaar and Bowe, there are at least half a dozen players worthy of carrying a legitimate “World Class” label. A big season is expected of the many potential jewels of the squad. The term “potential” has long defined Ulster players, many of whose careers have never lived up to early hope and expectation. In the three quarters particularly the time is now for Paul Marshall, Darren Cave and Nevin Spence to step forward and be recognized with big seasons needed to further their careers. If Craig Gilroy can follow up his remarkable try-scoring strike rate into his second season, with the superb Tommy Bowe returning to bolster the back three, and all hoping Jared Payne can recover from his injury woes and reignite the kind of form that made him a stand out Super 15 player, then there will be reason indeed to be cheerful looking forward to next season.

In terms of setting expectations, in spite of the assertion from the top that reaching the Heineken Cup final was simply 8/10, the truth is, to do so again given the strength in European club rugby, would be a remarkable achievement. Certainly in terms of revenue and credibility of a top side, a minimum achievement would be qualification to the Heineken Cup quarter finals, and a top four league finish. A good season, reinforcing last year’s achievement would see at least one good European away win, leading to a home European quarter final and on to a semi final appearance. Beyond that, luck plays a significant part.

Much is dependent on the new Head Coach, Mark Anscombe, who in truth most know little about. The New Zealander arrives having coached, of note, only an Auckland club side and New Zealand U20s. He has however captured a Junior World Championship and is thought to be a technical, specialist forwards coach, the area where Ulster are perhaps already strongest. Some fans might fear that Ulster will regress to a dull, forward-orientated side, although at this stage it's far too early to make that judgment. The great hope is, with his experience in drawing the best out of good underage players, he can prove to be the missing link between Ulster producing players of potential, and those same players actually achieving proving to be of real and consistent worth on the pitch at the top level.

At this stage, all we can do is speculate based on limited evidence; but we shall wait and see, in excited anticipation, not knowing quite what to expect, but knowing that the raw materials are there for another successful season in which Ulster ought to be once again there or thereabouts in the final roll call for honours.

 


 

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UAFC Editor has been a member since Thu May 03, 2012 8:02 am. He/She has posted a total of 18 News item(s) for a total of 27 post(s).

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Comments

User avatar
Scranner
Fri Jul 06, 2012 11:20 am

While taking note of your reservations about Anscombe's ability to focus on the backs, I would like to ask you this.
Given the amount and level of experience that the Doc has at 10, would it be disingenuous to suppose that he is probably in a better position to coach PJ than anyone else at UR?


User avatar
Barry Ireland
Fri Jul 06, 2012 1:08 pm

Not at all - think it's an interesting point. No question he knows a thing or two about playing 10. (Perhaps leave the tackling drills to the main coaching staff though).


User avatar
rumncoke
Fri Jul 06, 2012 9:18 pm

Very few if any of the Ulster squad would be considered world class -- good International standard --yes world class --no.

Similiarly it is debateable as to whether our forwards are our stongest feature -- Ulster have seldom dominated in the forwards -- retained their own ball in the set piece fine but our performance at the the breakdown has often been iffy and without Ferris the bachrow has struggled to cope with along side a tackle weak mid field .

The priorities in my humble opinion should be to improve our defence - ball retention rucking at the breakdown and to maximise our scoring potential when inside our opponents 22 , to often Ulster have come out of our opponents with null points.


User avatar
Barry Ireland
Sat Jul 07, 2012 12:59 am

Depends on your definition of World Class I suppose rumncoke - Rory Best is currently likely starting Lions hooker, Bowe a likely starting Lions winger, Ferris potentially the best 6 in the game when fully fit, Pienaar has been one of the top players in the European game over last couple of seasons, John Afoa is in my opinion immense, one of the best tight heads around and would still be an All Black if in NZ. Having a strong set piece is no small matter - game is often won and lost right there.

Completely disagree that there's any serious debate as to the forwards being Ulster's strongest facet at the moment. If not in the pack, particularly the tight 5, then where? Although agree that there are worries over the depth in the back row.

Easy to say lets improve our ability to score in oppenent's 22. But if you can figure out a single and simple way to do so, I'd be all ears!


bazzaj
Sun Jul 08, 2012 11:49 am

The world class debate rages on but I am with you on that issue and I think our squad has the potential to match most in Europe.
I dont think we have that much cause to worry about the pack but I think our weakness has been traditionally a lack of penetration in the back line.
Paynes fitness will be paramount as he will provide a different point of attack from full back that we have never really had.
PW, PJ and Cave are outstanding distributers but we need people to come onto the ball a lot more and offer a genuine threat which is not really in their game.
Luke Marshall could well turn out to be the centre to pair with PJ.
They know one anothers games inside out and Marshall is a genuine penetrative off loading centre of which have not possessed recently.
They lack the experience but whilst there is no real future in picking PW he will definately have a major part to play in those youngsters development.


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