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How is Ulster's squad looking for next season? Here's a stock-take of the options

 

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Coach Dan McFarland

Coach Dan McFarland

Coach Dan McFarland

While we don't know when we'll see Ulster again in either Guinness Pro14 or European Champions Cup action, a pair of recent signings at the Kingspan Stadium mean we know what the squad will look like next season.

We've taken stock of the options available to Dan McFarland for the 2020-21 campaign and grades each position in terms of strength.

Front row: Grade B

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Gareth Milasinovich will provide an additional option next season.

Gareth Milasinovich will provide an additional option next season.

Gareth Milasinovich will provide an additional option next season.

With Jack McGrath and Marty Moore both signing new deals to stay beyond this summer, former prop Dan McFarland has plenty of pedigree among his options at the coalface.

McGrath has been steadily rebuilding his career after injuries derailed the trajectory that had him playing for the Lions in New Zealand back in 2017.

Back in the Ireland reckoning, and still just 30, it’s a move that’s worked well for both parties. The same can be said for Moore, who, since arriving from Wasps in 2018, has been the answer to what has been a problem position since John Afoa left in 2014. Has had a few injury issues but had he been fit may well have been in the Six Nations reckoning.

Below that, two promising youngsters are pushing on. Eric O’Sullivan, such a revelation a year ago, has admitted to having a tougher time of it this time around but still has bags of potential, while Tom O’Toole hasn’t had many starts of late yet still caught the eye of Andy Farrell when called up to the Six Nations panel.

No real pecking order below that has been established but the return to fitness of Gareth Milasinovich – the man mountain suffered an ACL injury shortly after arriving and has yet to debut — gives another interesting option, while the emergence of Callum Reid next season would certainly be timely.

Hooker: Grade B

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Rob Herring

Rob Herring

Rob Herring

 

In the aftermath of Rory Best’s retirement, hooker was always going to be a position to watch this season.

Rob Herring could have started for plenty of teams over the last six or seven years and hasn’t missed a beat since finally getting his hands on the No.2 jersey in a permanent capacity.

If there’s any concern here for Ulster it’s that his form saw him installed as not only their first choice hooker but Ireland’s too, the native South African starting all three games so far under Andy Farrell.

Ballymena man John Andrew has already spoken this season about his own uncertain future beyond the end of this campaign and has been jumped in the queue by Adam McBurney, three years his junior.

It’ll be worth watching where Tom Stewart slots in next year. A starter for the Irish Under-20s but still only a year out of school, he’s highly regarded in the system. A position where more depth behind Herring would be welcome.

Lock: Grade C

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Iain Henderson

Iain Henderson

©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Iain Henderson

 

For whatever reason, second-row prospects are thin on the ground and any of the youngsters who have been handed senior debuts in recent seasons haven’t stuck in the panel.

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Iain Henderson is the obvious leading light here — the team’s captain, a 2017 British and Irish Lion, regular starter in the national side and a homegrown talisman having come through the Academy after starring for Belfast Royal Academy in a year when they reached the Schools’ Cup Final. Of course, with his Ireland commitments, it’d be a surprise if Henderson plays more Ulster games than he misses next season.

Alongside him more often than not this season has been Alan O’Connor, himself an Academy product having been brought north after missing out on a place in the Leinster system.

A quiet leader in the group, he seems to have really grown his game under McFarland and has praised the impact of skills coach Dan Soper on his more rounded performances.

Twice-capped Kieran Treadwell certainly has all the attributes but, after making such an impact in the Champions Cup Quarter-Final a year ago tomorrow, will surely be disappointed to start just one European game this season.

As it has been for a few years now, it’s largely been two from those three in the engine room — whether that changes is down to the fitness of Sam Carter.

The Wallaby international was brought in to add a veteran presence and a bit of forward heft but could give only 320 minutes before a serious shoulder injury sidelined him.

Back-row: Grade A

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Jordi Murphy

Jordi Murphy

Jordi Murphy

 

As it stands, the big question heading into next year is the contract status of Jordi Murphy. The former Leinsterman isn’t a flashy player by any means but is a hugely effective one. What he doesn’t provide in highlight reel moments he adds in more understated ones but there has as yet been no announcement on his future plans.

Alongside him, the province are blessed with one of the best No.8s in Europe in the shape of Marcell Coetzee. Having stayed fit by and large for the past two seasons, he seems to have put that injury-ravaged start to his Ulster career behind him and is a bonafide superstar import.

Sean Reidy — another who signed a new deal with the province recently — has been having a brilliant campaign below the radar, while Mattie Rea and Nick Timoney have provided plenty of minutes too.

With Marcus Rea, Azur Allison and David McCann all at various stages of their development pushing on, it would be encouraging to see any of that number progress next year. If there’s one complaint there’s no real like-for-like substitute for Coetzee’s ballast, but Ulster are far from the only team in the world who’d struggle to replace his talents. A strong group should Murphy sign on.

Scrum-half: Grade A

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John Cooney

John Cooney

John Cooney

 

Before the shutdown, Ulster could boast the form scrum-half in Europe in the shape of John Cooney.

The former Leinster and Connacht man was having a dream season, his try-scoring and kicking heroics leading the charge as the province emerged from their Champions Cup group for a second season in a row.

On a personal level, he was getting more of a crack with Ireland too — admittedly off the bench — after suffering the disappointment of missing out on the World Cup under previous head coach Joe Schmidt.

Should he miss more Ulster games through national call-ups moving forward, the province have lessened the risk by signing a real experienced back-up for next year. Alby Mathewson has All Black caps in his locker but is better remembered in this part of the world for backing-up Conor Murray at Munster, a similar role to the one he can be expected to fill here.

Incumbent reserve nine Dave Shanahan is still around too, while Wallace High pupil Nathan Doak — son of former head coach Neil Doak — is the latest hotly tipped prospect coming through the schools pathway.

Centre: Grade B+

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Luke Marshall

Luke Marshall

Luke Marshall

 

Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey are an excellent partnership with the former having slotted straight back in after overcoming a serious knee injury in 2018.

Arguably few players are more central to Ulster’s play than McCloskey with his excellent form not yet quite rewarded on the international scene despite a belated call-up to the Six Nations panel.

Kiwi import Matt Faddes had a debut season riddled with injury before it was eventually decided he was doing himself no favours playing on with a shoulder problem and figures to be better next time around.

Behind them is the next wave in the shape of James Hume and Stewart Moore. Hume had rotten luck with injury — starting the season well and getting back just in time to impress against Cheetahs over a month ago — missing a huge chunk of what figured to be a breakthrough campaign, while Moore made his senior bow against Leinster having previously impressed in friendlies and for the Irish Under-20s.

While McCloskey and Marshall aren’t going anywhere, getting the young duo reps will be important too while the physical Hayden Hyde is another who has impressed on the age-grade scene.

Back-Three: Grade A

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Robert Baloucoune

Robert Baloucoune

Robert Baloucoune

 

When everybody is fit is a phrase that should never be used to talk about a rugby team — there’s never a time when everyone is fit.

On paper, this is Ulster’s most competitive area but injuries have been a question mark. If the side were playing the European Cup Final tomorrow, you’d have to figure their back-three would be comprised of Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune on the wings with Will Addison at full-back.

That would leave out players of the quality of Louis Ludik, Craig Gilroy and Rob Lyttle, all of whom have real pedigree at this level despite spending plenty of time on the sidelines over the past few years, while Mike Lowry has played far more at full-back than out-half too.

Further down the line, Ethan McIlroy has made his debut this year and been a starter for the Irish Under-20s while teenage sprinter Aaron Sexton was starting in pre-season friendlies and starring for the ‘A’ side while still at school a year ago.

Addison, having featured 19 times over the course of his two seasons here, is another with uncertain contract status while Ludik is someone whose versatility surely makes him a valuable squad member even in a season during which he’ll turn 34 should he choose to play on. 


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