The Runner Sports

Ulster’s Scrum-Half Crisis

On the 31st of August, Ulster Rugby released a statement explaining that it would not be possible to extend the contract of stalwart scrum-half Ruan Pienaar past the end of the 2016/17 season, under the IRFU’s succession policy.

The succession policy means that only one non-Irish qualified player can occupy a field position across the provinces, excluding Connacht. And with the introduction of Jamison Gibson-Park to Leinster, Ulster will get the short end of the stick with this policy.

This move by the IRFU has caused outrage from Ulster supporters who will lose their first choice scrum-half.

The IRFU has refused to entertain pleas from Ulster or even Pienaar himself, who has settled with his family in Belfast. On Friday, IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora reiterated the IRFU’s position on the controversy, claiming this move will benefit Irish rugby better than allowing Pienaar to remain and no academy player being brought to the¬†professional level.

While Ulster still have Paul Marshall ready to take up the mantle in Pienaar’s absence, many critics don’t think Marshall is of high enough quality to take up the position of first choice scrum-half.

So where does that leave Ulster?

In a need of an Irish qualified, professional level scrum-half before the start of the next season, there are not many places for Ulster to look.

The three scrum-halves named in the Ireland squad, Conor Murray, Kieran Marmion, and Luke McGrath are all unlikely to leave their respective provinces, and while Leinster and Munster are not exactly flush with scrum-half options, a different story can be told about Connacht.

While Marmion has bolted down his position as first choice, second choice scrum-half Caolin Blade has been impressive at every given opportunity this season, and third choice John Cooney is always reliable when on the field. Both of these players have been tested in the Pro12 and may be good options for Ulster. It is very possible Connacht would be willing to let one of these players go, especially with Ireland U20 scrum-half Stephen Kerins making his way through the academy.

Outside of Ireland, James Hart has been turning heads at Grenoble since joining the club from Clontarf in 2011. Hart is also the most developed of any the Irish qualified scrum-halves that Ulster could choose from. However, Hart has also just begun the first year of a three-year deal at Racing 92, meaning it is very unlikely that Ulster would be able to persuade the 25-year-old back to Ireland.

Since it now seems impossible that the IRFU will go back on its decision, Ulster will need to find some solution, long or short, before the start of the 2017/18 season.