Ulster must not take the foot of the throttle as they prepare to tame Lions

Published Categorised as 2020-21, Editorial, Provincial Rugby Men, United Rugby Championship Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It has been the perfect start for Ulster to the new United Rugby Championship, three wins and with it five match points in each victory.

Richard Mulligan reports.

That 100 per cent start is shared by one other club, Munster, while the only other unbeaten side after three rounds of the new competition are defending champions Leinster, a point behind their Irish rivals having missed out on an attacking bonus point in a trip to Newport.

Munster, to their credit, have been impressive in their home routings of Sharks and Stormers and even more so as they thumped Scarlets away.

Leinster have also looked formidable in wins against Bulls and Zebre, although they looked very average as they held out to win 7-6 at Dragons, a performance that perhaps offered some hope to the remainder of those chasing the title, that even the mighty Irish Province can have an off day.

And what of Ulster?

It is hard to be critical of a side, missing a plethora of front line players to injury, who have maintained a 100 per cent record and picked up a full haul of points in wins over Glasgow, Zebre and Benetton.

But while they fought out a great victory over Glasgow to open the new season and welcome fans back to Kingspan Stadium, the bonus point wins over the Italian duo were somewhat laboured.

Job done of course and obviously it is how you look at things. If you’re a fan you want to see your side win, but in doing so you want to see them do it with some style. Attractive, high-tempo running rugby.

There were some sparks of great individuality from Ulster players but, certainly against Zebre, there was a lack of cohesion at times, perhaps call it a bit of rust still lingering from pre-season.

However, when you consider Dan McFarland has been unable to call on Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale, Robert Baloucoune, Stuart McCloskey, John Cooney, Jack McGrath, Jordi Murphy, Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore at stages in the past three weeks, then perhaps the performances should not be picked to pieces and a maximum haul of 15 points is maybe beyond expectations.

The past three weeks have confirmed there is more emerging talent coming through and the strength in depth has improved.

Looking at some of that new talent, Nathan Doak has been given opportunities he would probably not have expected in his rookie career with Cooney on the injury list.

The Ireland U20 has filled the number nine shirt solidly since he was called on as an early replacement in the game against Glasgow and has since started in both games against the Italian clubs.

Nathan Doak continues his impressive start to the season.

The 19-year-old still has lots to work on, particularly his passing speed, but his box kicking and place kicking  has stood out and he is usually on the shoulder of an attacking player, ensuring he is in the right place to take the final pass to score the try.

It was maybe over generous to get the player of the match award in the win over Zebre, but against Benetton he shone and fully deserved the accolade.

He is an exciting prospect who will only get better and there is every reason to see him go all the way.

Hooker Brad Roberts, having had impressive cameo appearances off the bench towards the end of last season, finally bagged his first start and while he perhaps struggled a little the progress he has made continues to take an upward trend. It is hard to believe that the front row forward came over from South Africa and was playing with Rainey Old Boys in the All Ireland League when he was spotted and found himself rubbing shoulders with Ireland hooker Rob Herring on the Ulster training ground.

Roberts and John Andrew will be good for each other, bringing further competition to the hooker position.

Ethan McElroy burst onto the senior front last season and perhaps at fullback he struggled, but on the wing he has shown potential and will continue to learn.

The stand-out performances in this early part of the season have come from some of the more senior players. Will Addison has impressed and it is only hoped he can maintain a steady level of fitness and avoid his injury jinx given what he has to offer in attack.

Craig Gilroy looks to be back on form.

Craig Gilroy has found his mojo again, standing out in the wins over Zebre and Benetton.

The other eye-catching display has come from James Hume. Capped by Ireland in the summer he continues to show strong development and is now regarded as one of the first names on the team sheet.

Ulster have certainly hit the ground running, but this is nothing new given how they went last season. In a relatively uncompetitive PRO14, or PRO12 to be correct, they tended to outgun most of the teams, except when it came to meeting Leinster or in the Champions Cup when they came up against Toulouse and Gloucester.

For now, it is less familiar opposition they face when Emirates Lions will be the first of the South Africans to visit Belfast.

Regarded as the weaker of the four Super franchises in the URC, Ulster are expected to get another job done at Kingspan Stadium, and while the result is important, a performance of note would also be appreciated.

Sam Carter and Dan McFarland look ahead to the exciting prospect of facing Emirates Lions on Friday night in Belfast, Ulster’s first competitive game against one of the South African sides to join the URC this season.

Speaking of the South African sides, it appears they may have finally shaken off the shackles.

The four sides are on a four-week tour of the North which is probably not ideal, living in bubbles as they have to and also coming off the back of a Currie Cup campaign.

The Lions were the only side to register a win in week one – at Zebre.

In week two all four lost, but there were signs of a turn in form in round three as the Lions picked up a losing bonus point at Glasgow – and should probably have won had the Scots not been awarded a try that never was – while the Bulls won at Cardiff, the Sharks against Ospreys and the Stormers picked up two points in a draw at Edinburgh.

With the return of their international contingent after the November Test series’ and with games at home, expect these sides to present a challenge, particularly the Bulls and Sharks.

And the final say of Round Three will last with the Dragons, the men of Gwent ended a 17-year run of losses in Galway as they powered past Connacht 35-22. 

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