COVID has played a huge part in the rugby season, especially in the PRO14. It’s no secret that the Irish provinces are far better funded than their counterparts and the substantial financial gap was evident at the start of the season. Ulster were leading by double figures at half time in 10 matches (8 PRO14, 2 Challenge Cup) this season, with six of them converting into 20+ wins (5 PRO14, 1 CC), three resulting in less than 10 point wins and one ending in defeat.
With the conclusion of the 2020 Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup to be played from October and November, it gave Ulster, who were only missing a handful of players from their side, a huge advantage over Edinburgh, Zebre, Ospreys and Glasgow Warriors whom they defeated with a combined points total of 164-55.
When it mattered however, Ulster tended to come out second best with another two defeats against Leinster as well as poor losses to Gloucester and Leicester Tigers. The warning signs from the Challenge Cup quarter final were not heeded as Tigers bested the Ulster pack in the second half to overturn an 11-point deficit and win the semi final.
We’ve also seen Ulster’s style of play develop in the last few seasons. The team averaged 7.6 offloads per game this season an increase from the 6.3 that they averaged the previous season. Largely due to the injury of Jack McGrath, we’ve seen loads of action from Eric O’Sullivan (21 apps | 1071 mins) as he continues to shine in a white shirt. His pop pass off nine is very good at changing the point of attack and isolating soft shoulders for the receiving players such as Nick Timoney, Iain Henderson and Tom O’Toole.
Who did what?
Dan McFarland fielded a total of 50 players last season an increase of four from the previous season but one less than 2018-19.
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Injuries, COVID and an emergence of quality options from the academy have seen a significant upturn in minutes played by players originating in Ulster. Louis Ludik‘s injury in October and Marcell Coetzee’s in March was their last action of the season with Ethan McIlroy and Timoney, respectively, taking the rest of their minutes. Michael Lowry, Stewart Moore, James Hume, John Andrew and McIlroy had a significant amount of minutes more this season than previously.
Academy players Cormac Izuchukwu, Nathan Doak, David McCann, Callum Reid and Aaron Sexton all made their debuts this season. McCann saw the most action with 286 minutes while Izuchukwu’s season was prematurely ended due to injury. With Alby Mathewson departing and the transfer for Leone Nakarawa falling through, we’ll see more of Doak, McCann as well as a debut for Reuben Crothers next season.
The variable quality in the league allowed the coaching staff to give opportunities to Moore, Lowry, McCann and McIlroy during the early stages of the season while Hume established himself as the first choice 13 in the absence of Luke Marshall. All excelled and remained in contention for game time in the latter stages of the season.
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This season saw 102 tries scored by the province across 25 matches played in all four competitions which is an average of 4.08 tries per game.
This is higher than last season’s average of 3.08 tries per game (71 tries in 23 matches) and anything in the past 10 seasons. It’s a reflection on how Ulster approach the game under McFarland – they are less likely to kick penalties, instead preferring to kick for the corner. It’s also a sign of the poor standard that they were allowed to do this, however there was no change in tactic against the better teams.
For the first time since 2017-18, Alan O’Connor is Ulster’s top tackler with 2019-20’s number one performer in second place. Ulster were seldom tested in the league this year and when they were, in both matches against Leinster, they came out second best. In terms of tries conceded per game, Ulster averaged 2.84 compared to 2.6 the previous season. None of the previous five seasons saw Ulster concede more tries per game compared to 2020-21.
Coetzee dominated the turnover stats in 2019-20 but an injury hit second half of the season allowed Timoney and Stuart McCloskey to take on the mantle in his absence. Before 2020-21, the former Blackrock schoolboy had recorded eight turnovers and he added another 13 onto this total last season. It’s evident that his has been a major work on for Timoney and it paid off with an Ireland debut in July. McCloskey also won 13 turnovers.
Unsurprisingly the outside backs lead the way in the metres made category. The crash ball options at 12 (McCloskey and Moore) are still prevalent in Ulster’s style of play with McCloskey making the most carries for Ulster (171) albeit 29 less than the previous season’s total. Timoney was the forward with the highest, clocking 416 and coming in eighth in Ulster’s squad.
In total Ulster recorded 536 defenders beaten and 220 clean breaks last season – an increase of 24 and 8 respectively. All bar Rob Lyttle and Robert Baloucoune made over 130 carries with Lyttle 31 defenders over just 80 carries and Baloucoune making 15 clean breaks over 59 carries. John Cooney takes the prize for the most clean breaks with an impressive 26 off just 83 carries.
The FRU Player of the Year
Ulster’s scrumhalf had another outstanding year in Belfast and is the FRU Player Of The Season 2020-21.
With 7 tries and 19 assists he was at the heartbeat of good victories in the league and in Europe. His 115 points and 13 assists in the PRO14 was the league’s high in each category.
It’s easy to see why he’s pivotal to the side as he’s player that links the forwards and backs seamlessly. He is Ulster’s talisman and playmaker, and perhaps the player most crucial to Dan McFarland.
Other notable mentions go to Michael Lowry, Nick Timoney, Marcell Coetzee and James Hume.