With Iain Henderson, Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray and Andrew Porter away with the Lions, it opens up a few spaces on the Irish panel for the “summer tour” matches against Japan and the USA.
Off the back of a decent season, there’s a few Ulster players who are in contention of a debut call up.
Despite only making his first appearance of the season at the end of February, Robert Baloucoune picked up where he left off when he got injured against the Cheetahs last season. He’s crossed the white line three times in eight appearances this season taking his overall tally to 15 Ulster tries in 29 appearances. Not only is he a threat going forward but he’s solid defensively, especially in one-on-ones, a skill he developed as part of the Sevens programme. There is a chance that he could be involved again with the Sevens if Ireland qualify for the Olympics, however it may only be as a replacement if one of the fliers, Jordan Conroy or Aaron Sexton get injured.
Having been involved in wider national squads during the last Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup, I think it’s almost certain that Tom O’Toole will make his international bow this summer. With Furlong and Porter away with the Lions, O’Toole is the obvious replacement along with Finlay Bealham and John Ryan while Stephen Archer and Dominic Robertson-McCoy will also be in contention. So far this season O’Toole has played 580 minutes of rugby in 15 appearances.
The former RBAI player has been one of Ulster’s stand out players this season. The majority of his rugby has been played at 15 but has started playing more at 10 during the latter stages of the campaign, culminating in 1357 minutes over 21 appearances. He’s scored six tries with the pick of the bunch coming in the Challenge Cup round of 16 tie against Harlequins. He has a chance, but it isn’t helped that all of Ireland’s Six Nations regulars in both positions will be available.
Ulster have been without first choice outside centre Luke Marshall for most of the season but James Hume has come in and performed very well whether outside Stewart Moore or Stuart McCloskey. A superb individual effort gave Ulster the lead in last season’s PRO14 final while another try followed in the opening match against Benetton. Although that has been his only score of the season, he’s an excellent ball carrier while only John Cooney and Jacob Stockdale have made more line breaks than the RBAI man. Garry Ringrose is the obvious choice at 13 with other outside options including Chris Farrell and Tom Daly.
When it was announced on Christmas Day that Marcell Coetzee would be departing the club at the end of the season, it left a big hole for Ulster in the number eight jersey. Since the announcement, Nick Timoney has missed just one game (Zebre) playing 899 minutes over 12 appearances. He was a prominent ball carrier in the forwards this season while his defensive work also received plaudits. He’s won 12 turnovers, joint highest with Stuart McCloskey. He’s got competition from players at other provinces however. Paul Boyle has been in terrific form over the last couple of seasons for Connacht while Munster’s Gavin Coombes burst onto the scene this year. Returning from injury, Caelan Doris will be favourite for this jersey.