What is your opinion on who provides the optimal Ulster halfback partnership? Should Ulster utilise the snappy pace of Paul Marshall at scrumhalf and the vast experience of Ruan Pienaar at outhalf, or stick to the more established, but still developing relationship of Pienaar and Paddy Jackson?
On the evidence of last weekend the former combination was far from an unqualified success. And how could it have been? Switching between scrumhalf and outhalf is an incredibly difficult thing to do.
The players I have encountered in the past who have been utilised similarly are Frenchmen Frederic Michalak and Jean Baptiste Elissade. Yet, for all their versatility Michalak was best employed at 10, while Elissade a natural nine.
This points me towards where the ‘natural’ strengths of the players lie. Pienaar can undoubtedly do a very good job at outhalf, but it is in the nine shirt that he shows complete mastery, is absolutely world class and dominates games.
Jackson is more aggressive in taking the ball to the line and defensively is a real nugget who aggressively punches above his weight. For me, these two features provide sufficient reason to believe that Ulster’s strongest suit is Pienaar and Jackson in their natural positions.
The added advantage is that, in Marshall, Ulster have a real gamechanger who provides a completely different threat with his injection of pace from the base of the scrum.
Of course the luxury that Mark Anscombe enjoys is the option to employ both tactics. Do you need to absolutely know who is your first choice starting outhalf?
Many have criticised Northampton for not being clear in this regard, while ironically Ulster’s next Heineken opponents, Saracens, retained Charlie Hodgson while playing the starting England outhalf at outside centre.
Tactics and the old phrase ‘horses for courses’ comes to mind. Ultimately Ulster won and that is all that counts. Alas, three into two doesn’t go and for me Jackson and Pienaar are currently the best combination.