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Tony Ward: No excuses for the predicament Ulster find themselves in now

By Tony Ward

There's something rotten in the state of Ulster. Generally, it has been a good season for the provinces, with Leinster and Munster reaching the last four of the Champions Cup and guaranteeing home semi-finals in the Guinness PRO12.

Ulster too have secured a place at the top table of European rugby for next season - a feat we should not take for granted - and Connacht could yet join them via the play-offs.

But Ulster and Connacht have both fallen well short of expectations.

For Connacht, the insecurity and poor timing of Pat Lam's exit announcement, allied to 'second season syndrome' following last year's exalted heights, have made for a tame 12 months, the Wasps win apart. It is not acceptable, but to some degree is understandable.

Ulster's predicament is less excusable.

It should not be forgotten that it was Ulster, particularly through Jimmy Davidson and the Club Ulster concept, who paved the way for the provinces and not the clubs representing the Irish professional arm when the game went open in 1995.

It was the era of Jimmy McCoy and Willie Anderson, Nigel Carr and Philip Matthews, Davy Irwin and Philip Rainey, Keith Crossan and Trevor Ringland, and so many other great, great players.

I love Ulster rugby and almost everything it stands for.

The old Ravenhill, now Kingspan, is in my view the best ground in the land. The place where consistently packed terraces 'stand up for the Ulstermen' has married the old with the new and made for the near-perfect stadium to meet the needs of the professional game.

If you haven't yet enjoyed the Kingspan experience I urge you to go - and by God do Northern Ireland people make you feel welcome, without dropping their Ulster bias one iota.

But why is Ulster rugby losing its way on the field? I don't have the definitive answers but I do have some observations.

On the plus side is an under-age system still churning out talent, particularly through the schools.

The conveyor belt at Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst), Methody and Campbell, to name but three, is as efficient today as it has been for decades.

And the game is spreading, with Royal School Armagh (the first winners of the Senior Cup in 1876) taking the Medallion Shield for the first time ever this year, from a semi-final line-up that included Friends' School Lisburn, Portadown College and Bangor Grammar, with only Bangor having lifted the U16 title before.

The Ulster Academy under Kieran Campbell is hard to find fault with, yet the seniors continue to huff and puff but blow precious little down.

The appointment of Jonno Gibbes as forwards coach could be vital. Along with Michael Cheika, the former All Black back-row transformed the Leinster forwards' mindset, and that is without doubt the greatest need of all with Ulster.

They desperately need Springbok back-row Marcell Coetzee to get fit, and they need to bring in other ball-carriers.

And please may we be spared players telling us how great training is going and what they are going to do in the next game. Last week, Robbie Diack was saying Ulster were "thriving under the pressure" and Stuart McCloskey was "backing Ulster to deliver" ahead of the loss to Ospreys.

Sometimes it's best saying nothing at all, letting rugby actions do the talking.

The decision taken by the IRFU to show Ruan Pienaar the door is nothing short of appalling, whatever the rationale, but Ulster will just have to cope without their star scrum-half.

New signing John Cooney and back-up No.9 Dave Shanahan face a big challenge ahead.

Still, Ulster have a backline oozing with quality at every position from No.10 out - although they urgently require cover for Paddy Jackson.

It's also time for Iain Henderson to become a leader in his own right, more than a Stephen Ferris follow-on.

And Charles Piutau, for all his attacking talent, needs to take a look at himself, given what we witnessed in Limerick a fortnight ago when he needlessly drifted to allow Peter O'Mahony the inside lane and then barely broke stride to track back and cover.

Professionalism it was not, and it was all too indicative of a side that is a very long way from being the sum of its parts.

The arrival of Gibbes and new backs coach Dwayne Peel can't come quickly enough.

Belfast Telegraph


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