What does Director of Rugby even mean?
It has seemed in the past few years that David Humphreys has been leading the Ulster revival, signing high profile players and pushing a vision of Ulster, which presumably was intended to finish with Ulster etched on some trophies. The latter part hasn’t happened and although he leaves Ulster much better off than when he started the timing sucks. You have to wonder why he was drawn by the Premiership siren call – the simplest explanation would be that he believes he can do the same job at Gloucester but with a better chance of success. The challenge of building a team from lower regions of the table to top contenders is appealing, and no doubt he feels he’s learned from his time at Ulster and can fix any previous mistakes.
But why not stick around and use those lessons to finish out the job at Ulster? Money could be one reason although I don’t think he was badly compensated at Ulster. Its likely that Gloucester might have more funds to buy the necessary players but I believe there is a salary cap in the Premiership so its swings and roundabouts in this regard.
Director of Rugby is a nebulous term in Ireland and meaning everything and nothing at once. In England its a more established position even if it is still complicated and shifting in meaning – perhaps DOR at Gloucester offered Humphreys a chance to put a greater mark on the team and even move into coaching in some way.
Another reason might be that he simply doesn’t believe Ulster can break through the final phase and become champions. I think this is as likely as anything, which basically amounts to the belief that he can get Gloucester from ninth place to title contenders in less time than it would take to get Ulster over the line. That’s an incredibly damning assessment of a team that’s reached the knock out stages the last three years in a row. Obviously its also my words not Humphreys but I think there’s a strong case to be made on this basis.
At the start of the 2013/14 season I said to no one in particular that this was Ulster’s last big chance to earn some silverware. In retrospect, seeing how dominant Leinster and Toulon were this year (in the rabo and hec respectively), its hard to see how they could have won either tournament even without the red cards they picked up. That said they surely had a chance in the league if they could have overcome Leinster, but for the third time in a row they couldn’t.
I believe that like Leinster it is fair to say that they are facing into a period of uncertainty. Crisis perhaps makes it sound worse than it needs to be, but there’s good reason to feel that Ulster are in unhappy territory right now. Like my last post this will be a review of where I see the teams strengths and weaknesses. Unlike Leinster, Ulster have at least made a number of purchases. However there are significant question marks over the quality of player out versus in which could leave Ulster tied to potentially below par players for a while. This is of course the dangers of the marketplace and its perhaps one reason why MOC should pause and reflect on whether or not the IRFU have Leinster’s needs in mind – its one thing to want players, its another to get them and realise you were better off without them.
In contrast to the other three Irish provinces things look a little rough in the Ulster front row. Sure they have quality and depth at hooker but either side has now become problematic. The loss of Afoa has been greeted with resignation and perhaps even relief – he really hasn’t shown top form in a long time. However Fitzpatrick is patently not capable of being a first choice prop, and hasn’t appeared in more than 15 games a season since 2009/10. He’s obviously had a horrid time with injuries and although there hasn’t been much news about him lately I believe his career may have been in the balance at one point this year and I’m not sure he’s properly cleared for duty yet.
This leaves new signees Wiehahn Herbst(25) and Dave Ryan(27) to battle it out for a starting position, but regardless of who starts its likely that both will be required to appear on the majority of team sheets next year. I haven’t seen much (ie nothing) of either of them – both are the right age to make an impact but were also decidedly not first choice at their previous teams. That in itself is not normally a huge negative; any amount of teams have bought players and moulded them into quality options. But again considering the lack of viable alternatives Ulster cannot afford either of them to be anything less than their best from the start. The times I’ve seen Lutton play he’s appeared at hooker, but the Ulster site assures me he is primarily a prop. Maybe this is his time to shine?
Loosehead is hardly any better with Tom Court moving to the Premiership. Again some vocal Ulster fans were fairly blasé about the player with the fourth most appearances of the present team (ever?) leaving. He’s obviously been the bedrock of the Ulster team and scrum for several years now but since Twickenham has not really gotten the respect he deserved. Sure he’s not the best or most dynamic loosehead in the country, but you’re going to have a hell of a time replacing his durability alone, not to mention his scrummaging. I’ve not been too impressed with Black yet and feel he is a significant reduction in quality at scrum time.
Brumbie by way of Dublin prop Ruaidhri Murphy joins next season to challenge for a spot. He’s in good shape and a good age to make an impression but Aussie rugby is not known for the importance of its scrum. Still he must be a step up from semi-pro Bronson Ross and academy graduate Andrew Warwick. The latter was an unused sub three times before finally making his debut so its not unfair to say his scrummaging is still a work in progress. http://www.irishrugby.ie/news/30301.php#.U5YuryhvokQ
I do like to see Irish players breaking into senior rugby so of course I wish him well and hopefully he will see more game time next season and continue to improve. However while Ulster are waiting for that development they could be in for a hell of a time. The new European cup draw sees them pitted against some teams who will pride themselves on their scrummaging, and the rabo is getting consistently stronger in this regard.
Ulster are relatively stacked in the second row and have some of the best ball carrying second rows in Ireland to boot. Captain Muller has finally retired and in his stead comes Flip Van Der Merve. At 29 and a fairly seasoned international he should be able to slot in quite well. He’ll be partnered by one of Dan Tuohy, Lewis Stevenson, Neil McComb or Iain Henderson. Its not an awful lot of depth for an attritional position and its not very scary prospect to face, but at least the three senior players are all proven at this level and Henderson is showing improvements all the time. Will he be needed at flanker though?
The second shock of the summer for Ulster was Ferris’ retirement. Except it wasn’t that much of a shock as it had been mooted for almost two years now. An ignoble end to a brilliant players career, but Ulster have had to plan without him for a while.
Ulster – and the back row – are bigger than one man, and herein lies the problem. For me it seems like Ulster have depended on one big man in one way or another for two long now, and their back row seems badly imbalanced when compared to the quality alternatives of the likes of Leinster or Toulon. A harsh assessment perhaps but those are the teams they want to beat after all.
Henry is solid without being in any way remarkable and is basically Ulster’s Robshaw (they’re even both called Chris). They’re also basically the same size, weight and shape, but if Robshaw shades it at all (and he must as England captain?) I would say he is just that bit more dynamic in the loose and has an even higher workrate than Henry (who is also no slouch its fair to say). Henry’s deputy is Sean Doyle who again is workmanlike without any remarkable qualities and is a bit smaller than Henry. That’s an issue as even though openside is generally the smallest backrow player there’s not much room for guys with the wrong weight/height balance any more when you have players like Sean O’Brien around and Fatty Armitage (whatever about jersey numbers) who are immovable when they get over a ruck.
The second problem for Ulster is the lack of a top quality eight. Nick Williams was an exciting but ultimately extremely limited one trick pony in his first season at Ulster but that trick is over and he’s been sussed. Roger Wilson has played a huge amount of rugby over his career but is unlikely to lift his game another level at 33. He played at six a few times this season which was interesting but I don’t think its a long term option unless they make a big eight signing. The less said about Mike McComish the better I feel.
At blindside you have the freshly capped Robbie Diack (also an eight and second row option) and then you’re looking at players from other positions to fill a space. Henderson has looked more assured at six than second row thus far in his career, so Henderson, Henry, Diack is not an improbability at some point.
Diack is one of those players who will work hard, is capable of big carries, runs, good in the lineout – the whole shebang, except for the smarts. We’ve seen time and again that he is not one of those top quality players who can decide a game in their favour, and his butchering of a three on one in Argentina was the latest in a number of examples. Sure it was his debut but he’s a veteran pro at this point and it was hardly the most pressurised or games or plays.
Outside of Ferris and Henderson, Ulster’s backrow has solid but unremarkable written all over it – in caps. This is obviously one of the reasons Ferris was held onto for so long. There’s no point saying back row is the most important unit on the field, because that’s only true until its fixed and then the next weakest unit becomes priority. However right now it is definitely lacking anything that will break Ulster through the glass ceiling of also rans.
Pienaar at nine is beyond established and borders on saint status for the northerners. I’ve nothing against that, he’s a quality player, but he’s also on a huge wage, which is potentially draining resources from the team. Even worse, Ulster don’t trust Paul Marshall at all and were unwilling to bring him on in knock out games this season when it was clear Pienaar was trying to play through injury and not succeeding. 23 man game etc. Ulster lack alternatives and have let Ian Porter go to Connacht, which should temper some of the enthusiasm for our new signing. He may improve with game time but he’s clearly not been a threat to Marshall. Ulster have backed Michael Heaney as their up and comer but again he’s yet to threaten Marshall’s place as second scrum half.
Paddy Jackson looks a very good player who has yet to show his best. To be at the level he’s at right now, at his age, suggests he’s already overachieving, and he’s certainly outperformed any of the other provincial incumbents at the same age. However like scrum half there’s no clear back up here. Pienaar is often cited as back up 10 which is true but only shifts the problem to 9 in the event of injury or drop in form. In fairness this was made worse this season with Stuart Olding’s injury. Although he’s looked exciting when playing at 12 and 15 he is listed as a fly half and that is where Ulster need him most. Talk of his wondrous side step making him a ready made BOD replacement are wide of the mark.
The prodigal son Ian Humphreys returns for next season, to little fanfare. Everyone knows what he can do at this point, and while he can be incredibly exciting he’s still going to be a revolving door in defence. He at least offers proven cover and will see himself as a threat to Jackson’s place, I hope. If not then he’s really just there for the pay cheque. In theory Ulster have the best depth of any province at 10 next year, whether it plays out that way will be interesting.
The third (and earliest) blow to Ulster was the news that Paddy Wallace was retiring. He has the most appearances for the province ever, was a mainstay at 12 while also being a credible back up 10. Again, like Court, some actions in a green jersey may have damaged his reputation somewhat but he was a classy operator. Luke Marshall has become a quality alternative but I believe there are serious question marks over his career, particularly because of the way he plays. He’s too small to play the bosher that he’s being used as, and worse puts his head in places you wouldn’t put his boot as the saying from another code goes. He’s already had to take two breaks in the last two seasons to recover from concussions. A few years ago this would have been hushed up or not even noteworthy but we’re passed the point where concussion can be ignored (outside of France at least). Craig Clark’s retirement reminds us that it won’t be down to the player in the end. Marshall is a good player who could be Ireland’s 12 in the world cup or could just as easily be retired by then.
I have a feeling that this may have played at least some factor in the use of Payne at 13 and Cave at 12 that we’ve seen occasionally this season. Certainly it also improves Cave’s chances in the Ireland squad if he shows he’s a decent utility option – Joe takes utility cover seriously. Cave is not BOD, that much was pointed out to us at the weekend, but he is a good player. Payne is also a good player but remains Ulster’s best full back and second best 13.
There are a number of other options in the squad including Michael Allen who’s looked handy to me the few times I’ve seen him, when he was played on the wing. A lot of centres have started on the wing so it shouldn’t be a mark against him but it may be that he still needs time to develop.
Tommy Bowe played centre a long time ago from what I can tell. For me Bowe is simply too good on the wing to move, and anyways his scything runs through the centre are made on the basis of him coming off the wing as an extra man. He could lose some of his impact if he was used at 13 from the start.
Ulster are of course still in the shadow of Nevin Spence’s death to some extent and he would have been expected to push for a place at this point in his career. That this cannot be the case will have left a mark in some way on the Ulster psyche.
At last, a return to rosier climes. Ulster are full of outside back talent, including the internationals Bowe, Trimble, Gilroy and the likely international Payne, along with a host of young pretenders who have generally looked the business. Its fairly clear that this is where their strength lies but they don’t have the support in front of them to make the most of this chockablok talent. They’ve signed a new south african full back from the D2 which has the journeyman tag firmly attached. Its a shame in a way as seems superfluous as Gilroy has regained form at 15 and there are number of other young options already with the club.
Its a sign perhaps of the paucity of options in the market that Ulster have bought this full back and were being ‘seriously’ talked about as breaking Stuart Hogg’s contract just a couple of weeks ago. While I always believed that was rubbish – it made absolutely no sense to me on any level – it was symptomatic of a situation where there is close to zero movement in the market right now. Ulster have signed what they can and may even have gotten some bargains, but its hard going for the most part. Ulster may yet have the weakest pack of any Irish province next season and possibly (even hopefully, from a Connacht pov) the most imbalanced backrow. That would be bad enough but their centre options are narrowing and they remain shallow at scrum half.