It’s been over a year since Ulster began their 2019-2020 season and a 36-8 defeat to Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter final ended the campaign, leaving Dan McFarland just two weeks to get the boys prepared for season 2020-21.
A PRO14 final and a quarter final appearance in Europe marked a headline improvement from last season, certainly in the league based on a results outcome. However, Ulster were comfortably outclassed in both matches showing that they still have work to do if they are to be considered amongst europe’s elite.
Injuries to key players is an occurance in most squads but timing is everything. Will Addison has only played 508 minutes of rugby over eight appearance, Robert Baloucoune and Luke Marshall have not played since before lockdown while Marcell Coetzee was not fit for the PRO14 final and subsequently missed the quarter final. Ulster were without their main ball carrier for a physical match up in Europe.
Who did what?
Forty-six players took the field for Ulster over the duration of the season with a total of 27 players making ten appearances or more, compared to the previous season’s 32.
For the third year in a row, Ulster-born players have seen a decrease in time spent on the pitch. COVID certainly plays a factor in these results with a curtailed season seeing Ulster use four less players than last season while their Ulster-born Irish stars, Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale played significant amount of minutes less in a white jersey than the season before.
The Academy churn remains well behind that of, our near neighbours, Leinster despite both being the only provinces drawing from populations over 2 million. Granted the Ulster population is 14% smaller but the progression of Leinster youth is 300% – 400% more likely in a given year.
“From the grass roots up” is not working for Ulster and it’s got progressively worse over the last three years if minutes on the pitch is the measure.
Three academy players made their debuts for Ulster this season. Stewart Moore, Azur Allison and Ethan McIlroy impressed off the bench against Leinster in December with Moore making another appearance against Cheetahs in February.
Twenty-one-year old Moore signed a three year professional contract with Ulster last season with his first year as a development deal. We’ll see plenty more of Moore, Allison, McIlroy next season while Irish U20 Grand Slam captain David McCann, flyer Aaron Sexton and abrasive hooker Tom Stewart are also included in the academy.
Wallace boys, Nathan Doak, Reuben Crothers and Ben Carson are all highly rated but just out of school so I think the season after next will be their break through year.
No surprises that Marcell Coetzee and Stuart McCloskey lead the Ulster rankings in carries made. It is evident that Ulster heavily rely heavily on their eight and centre to generate go forward ball and while both are destructive and offer multiple options for Dan McFarland, it can get a bit predictable as Ulster struggled to break down well organised defences. We saw in the PRO14 final how Robbie Henshaw and Josh van der Flier targeted Stuart McCloskey and Billy Burns respectively which nullified Ulster’s attacking game.
The statistics also show how much Will Addison brings to the side. Despite ranking 26th for minutes played he is in the top ten of all attacking categories expect clean line breaks where he is ranked 12th. Only Stockdale and McCloskey have carried for more metres than the former Sale Sharks and England U20 international. He’s an edge of your seat player with the potential to create something out of nothing for Ulster. He has suffered a setback while rehabilitating his back injury so will be out for several months.
Tackle statistics don’t necessarily show the full picture on how good a side is at defending. For example, a forward could miss a tackle in the middle of the pitch, but a supporting player recovers preventing any damage being done. Similarly, wing position is a difficult place to defend as it offers more one-on-one opportunities for the attacker. Over the last three seasons, Ulster’s tackle success has stayed steady, making between 87.0% and 87.5% in all three campaigns.
Unsuprisingly Marcell Coetzee leads Ulster’s turnover statistics with 19 followed by Stuart McCloskey and Iain Henderson with 9 and 6 respectively. Coetzee is Ulster’s main threat at the break down whereas McCloskey, Henderson and Sean Reidy are great at holding the attacker up and winning a scrum turnover.
The South African international has made the most turnovers for Ulster over the last three seasons (42), two ahead of McCloskey despite playing 27 games less than the centre. Jean Deysel only made 16 appearances for Ulster but is fourth on the list for total turnovers.
How much of an improvement have Ulster made?
Scoring 71 tries across both tournements, this down on the 82 scored in 2018-19 and 84 in 2017-18 however Ulster played seven less games this season. Had the season progressed as expected, I would have been disappointed if Ulster did not reach 85 tries across both competitions.
With an average of 3.08 tries per match, this is a significant increase in last season’s average of 2.73 tries per game. Seven of Ulster’s 23 matches resulted in try bonus points, compared to six in 30 efforts the season beforehand. With matches against Dragons and Zebre postponed, you would have fancied Ulster to record try bonus points in another three games.
Looking at individual results, Ulster’s win percentage declined compared to recent seasons:
Eight of the nine losses have come away from home with the other loss coming at the Aviva Stadium to Leinster where Ulster were deemed the home side. Only four of the 17 wins came away from home, two of which were in the Heineken Champions Cup while four of the away losses in the PRO14 resulted in Ulster picking up either a try bonus point or a losing bonus point. This is an improvement on last season where Ulster didn’t get any bonus points from their six defeats in the league.
It’s difficult to draw conclusions from this due to a number of factors; Ulster had eight regular season fixtures left when the season was halted, four home and four away. Only one of the away matches was against a side where you would ‘expect’ Ulster to lose (Glasgow) with the rest being against Dragons, Zebre and Bennetton.
As well as this Ulster’s focus had changed after the restart of the league as they were confirmed semi finalists before they kicked a ball. The two matches against Connacht and Leinster were about getting the players match fit for the trip to Murrayfield.
If I were a betting man, I would have guess Ulster would have finished up with a similar win/loss record to the previous season. However the point remains, until Ulster can consistently travel away from Kingspan Stadium and come home with wins, they’ll struggle to win silverware.
FRU Player of the Season
There are three nominees for The Front Row Union Ulster Player of the Season
And The FRU’s player of the season is? Click below.
The Front Row Union Ulster Player of the Season 2019-20
The bruising back rower has been at the forefront of any Ulster success this season. Topping the turnover charts as well as the carries, Ulster heavily relied on him to provide go-forward ball and he ably obliged. Having missed the Springboks World Cup victory due to injury, his performances in a white shirt warrant a return to the South Africa team and Ulster could lose him to the Rugby Championship when it starts at the end of the year.
Looking to next season…
With COVID still a real threat, we’re seeing a elongated international window leaving Ulster without international call ups for a large proportion of the opening two months of the season. I’m not sure we’ll see them take the pitch in the domestic league at all.
We may however see more “Ulster origin” players take the pitch as the COVID crisis continues and teams are forced to cut their cloth to suit a much reduced income. Players with International aspirations in other countries will not be considered for their national sides unless they return to self contained bubbles and, even in Ireland, it’s difficult to see International players being released for provincial duties if there is any chance of this main cash cow being endangered by a provincial outbreak.
At long last the Southern Kings experiment is over as the side entered voluntary liquidation during lockdown. While we will be without the Cheetahs until at least 2021 due to COVID restrictions in South Africa. PRO Rugby are hoping another side will take the place of the Eastern Cape side and talks are in progress to increase the South African contingent to four. Ideally this would change the competition to two leagues rather than the horrendous conference set up but I cant see that happening for a couple of years.
At the moment the competition will revert to the PRO12 until the New Year where (hopefully) the Cheetahs and AN Other join to fulfil the numbers. How the administrators are going to incorporate an increase of teams midway through the season will be interesting.
Note. It was confirmed on Tuesday, September 29th that the Cheetahs will leave the competition with the SARU hoping to add the Bulls, Sharks, Lions and Stormers to make it the PRO16 from 2021-22. Never a dull moment off the pitch in the PRO14.