Belfast Telegraph

Dan Soper: The coach who has given Ulster cutting edge this season

Ulster v Harlequins, Heineken Champions Cup - Pool Three, Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 3.15pm

Robert Baloucoune sprints home
Robert Baloucoune sprints home
Skills coach Dan Soper
Kicking specialist John Cooney

By Michael Sadlier

As we witnessed some pretty sharp skills from Ulster in last Friday's opening half-hour, it seems a fair enough call to bring out Dan Soper as things shift up a few gears for Europe and Saturday's visit of Harlequins.

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The genial Kiwi, who joined Ulster's backroom staff as a skills coach from RBAI in 2018, has been grafting away with the squad and the fruits of his labour appear to be showing some promising returns.

Soper's influence on the squad has already been highlighted by John Cooney and it is no rare thing for other players to cite his input on raising standards and instilling belief.

He works on what may appear basic things - passing, catching and kicking - but with the emphasis very much on improving mindsets and creating pressurised moments in training as a means of lifting execution and accuracy.

"We like to challenge everybody to get better and we put a big emphasis on individuals working on their individual skill," said Soper, who is normally found at pitch-side during games.

"Catch, pass, kick, breakdown work, tackle technique, the emphasis is on everyone to try and improve those nuts and bolts that hold the big picture together.

"The guys work hard at it and if you look closely at last Friday night (against the Scarlets) there were times in the second half when some of our catch-pass didn't look bad but was just enough on the back hip to check guys from taking that half-metre.

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"If you give the likes of (Robert) Baloucoune, (Jacob) Stockdale or (Craig) Gilroy, or any of these guys, that half-metre they can really nail it."

Still, that opening half against the west Wales region was pretty good, 24 unanswered points offering up plenty of evidence that backs coach Dwayne Peel's attacking plays can cause problems and neatly dovetail with Soper's skills work.

"Peely did a really good job last week in identifying where space was going to be and then I worked with the kickers," said Soper. "They all kick most days and they'll do a designated kick session on our 'down-type' day.

"They put a lot of time into the technique of the kicks and the repetition of getting it right and then come game day it's up to all 15 guys to identify if that space is where we thought it was going to be and then go after it."

Stuart McCloskey even got in on the act, his dink over the top of the Scarlets defence creating just enough for Matt Faddes to score Ulster's first try of the evening.

And cross-kicks, a bit of a speciality for Billy Burns with Bill Johnston also able to deliver this defence-busting tactic, will also be seen this weekend as a means of giving Quins problems.

With tall wingers such as Stockdale and Baloucoune out wide, an accurate cross-kick can be a very dangerous weapon, though, as Soper points out, the player going after the kick has a job to do as well.

"They've (wingers) still got to commit to being in the right place and go after the ball in the air and hope the kicker has put the ball on the money," he said.

Finding space with delicate and accurate kicking has become an effective way of unlocking the game's highly organised defences and Quins are one of those sides renowned for their work without the ball.

"It's (kick-passing and cross-kicking) certainly an evolving part of the game globally," Soper explained.

"The way defences are working now, they have 14 players in the front-line and so that space has to be somewhere else and you have to get it there."

There are two ways of working towards getting the offensive kicking game functioning to the highest degree.

"We do it when we're training, 15-on-15 with one team trying to mimic the opposition and create that space (for kicks to hit) and then we do it when it's just the kickers out there," said Soper.

"(Then) we're just setting targets out on the pitch and giving them cues for this target or that target and how quickly they can kick the ball from hand to foot and how quickly they can get it into that space.

"We also do kicking sessions over the summer, kicking with the right and left foot, and I suppose all that paid the reward last Friday night."

Quins will bring a much more muscular challenge than the one thrown up by Scarlets in last weekend's brief return to the PRO14 stage with the kicking of Danny Care an area of real danger for Ulster.

Still, Dan McFarland's side go into the game top of Pool Three after the hard-fought results over Bath and Clermont, and with the 29-5 win over Scarlets they have managed to win three on the bounce.

"It's very important when you start getting on a bit of a roll like that," stated former Banbridge coach Soper.

"That word momentum is one you like to lean on and keep going.

"Of course it's one game at a time and this is the unique period of the season when you play a team back-to-back.

"We know how important it is to get a good start this week."

With Quins third in the group and four points behind Ulster, their embarrassing hammering in the first round at Clermont can be dismissed as hardly pertinent to the here and now.

Soper is only too happy to compare them to Ulster's position last year after two rounds which ultimately saw the province win four European games on the bounce, starting away, to secure a quarter-final.

"In some way Harlequins are in no different position than we were," he added. "Round three for us last year, away to Scarlets, we then started to take off so they're still in the mix.

"We need another really good performance at home to keep the momentum going."

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