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Guinness Pro 14 Preview: Ulster

Ulster is looking to bounce back from a down year, in which Ulster missed the Pro 12 playoffs for the first time since 2012. They narrowly missed the playoffs by only one point to Ospreys this past season. Ulster will also be looking to recover from losses in key positions, some due to off-field problems as well as regular transfers.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding

The biggest story for Ulster during the summer was one of the worst possible scenarios. Irish internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were accused and are being prosecuted on rape charges. The alleged offense occurred last June.

According to The Telegraph: “The men were arrested and questioned last summer. They were released pending a report being submitted to prosecutors in Northern Ireland.”

The Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby have both made statements saying they are taking the accusations “extremely seriously” and that both players are ­“relieved of their duties and ­obligations” until the completion of the proceedings. This likely means that both men will be unavailable for the entire season at a minimum. Both men vehemently deny the charges brought against them.

These developments are a massive blow to the Ulster team. Paddy Jackson is the nailed on number one pick for fly half, and Stuart Olding has slotted in at the position as well as being an internationally capped center. Ulster is left with filling a huge gap in their team at a very vital position. Paddy Jackson started 16 matches last season, the next closest selection, Peter Nelson, started only four matches. Fortunately for Ulster, the depth at center is better than fly half, so the loss of Stuart Olding has less impact on the team this season.

Squad

Most of the losses due to transfer in the off-season were not major losses. The one major exception is the loss of Ruan Pienaar who will be playing for Montpellier in the French Top 14. His loss will be very difficult to replace as he was a top flight technician during his years with Ulster. John Cooney has been brought in from Connacht to help fill the void. Between Cooney and Paul Marshall, they will be able to fill the void.

To help with the severe problems at fly half, Ulster is in negotiations with the great Australian fly half Christian Leali’ifano to bring him to Northern Ireland. Leali’ifano is world renown as a fly half and has had a great career with the Super Rugby team the ACT Brumbies as well as the Wallabies. During his time with the Brumbies, he has had 117 caps and 803 points. He was also heavily talked about last season due to his diagnosis with Leukemia. It was questioned whether he would ever play rugby again, but made his return for the Brumbies during their playoff loss to the Hurricanes. If he decides to make the jump to Ulster it will be phenomenal move for Ulster, although not quickly enough for their early season

Expected Starting XV

  1. Callum Black- 128 caps. The seasoned veteran will still have quite an impact, although likely to split time frequently with Andrew Warwick.
  2. Rory Best- 198 caps. The British and Irish Lions prop is likely to have another great season.
  3. Wiehahn Herbst-54 caps.
  4. Kieran Tredwell- 21 caps. Although a very limited number of caps, 12 of them came last season.  He is very quickly gaining experience with the team.
  5. Alan O’Connor- 39 caps. The second row is light on experience this year.
  6. Iain Henderson- 74 caps. Even though a lock by trade, expect Henderson to spend a lot of time at Flanker this season. Last year he started 13 matches at 6 but only two at 5.
  7. Chris Henry- 165 caps.
  8. Sean Reidy- 58 caps.
  9. Paul Marshall/John Cooney- 195/0 caps. Paul Marshall has been with Ulster for over a decade and is a competent scrum half. His years in rugby are fading quickly, so expect John Cooney to be slotted in for experience.
  10. Peter Nelson- 37 caps. Picking this position is very difficult due to Ulster’s dependence on Paddy Jackson. This position may change if Leaili’ifano makes the jump and acclimates quickly.
  11. Charles Piutau/Craig Gilroy- 23/149 caps. Piutau is a phenomenal player for Ulster, as is Craig Gilroy. Gilroy has been capped for Ireland multiple times. Although heavily capped, Gilroy is still young and with Piutau’s expected departure for Bristol, either player could pull on the 11 jersey.
  12. Stuart McCloskey- 58 caps.
  13. Luke Marshall- 104 caps.
  14. Andrew Trimble/Craig Gilroy- 217/149 caps. Another player who has been with Ulster a very long time, Trimble is a staple at Ulster. With Gilroy’s ability, though, he could easily find himself at the 14 position.
  15.  Jared Payne- 78 caps. A late addition to the British and Irish Lions tour, Payne is a play maker.

Coaching

Ulster has brought in New Zealander Jono Gibbes as the new head coach for Ulster. After their disappointing season in 2016, Ulster decided it was time for a change. This will be Gibbes’ first job as head coach after being forwards coach for both Clermont and Leinster. Gibbes played for the Super Rugby Chiefs from 2001-2007 as well as being capped for the Maori All Blacks eight times.

Gibbes stated that: “Ulster is a team that I know well, having come up against them on a number of occasions. The Clermont-Ulster games this season gave me an insight into the strengths of the squad and it’s exciting to think that I’ll be part of that environment from next season.”

Gibbes will have his hands full this season dealing with relatively new players at both half back positions. It is not an ideal starting spot for a coach new to the role.

Schedule

Although having the inherent difficulties of an Irish team in the new format, Ulster’s season is not too bad. They only have to play Glasgow and Ospreys once, and both at home. They will have to run the gauntlet of home and away matches, but overall very manageable.

Outlook

Both half back positions and a new head coach will make this year a difficult one to navigate. Ulster has all the tools and abilities, but putting those pieces together will be essential. Ulster can finish the season near the top of their conference if they are able to put the pieces back together. It is highly unlikely they will finish worse than third in their conference.

 

 

Pro 14 Previews:

Connacht

Cardiff Blues

Zebre

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David Bradham

Active duty Navy, have a true passion for Rugby.
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