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Young guns are on fire as Ulster book a knock-out slot

Northampton 20 Ulster 24

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Magic Mike: Ulster’s Michael Lowry powers through to score. Credit: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Magic Mike: Ulster’s Michael Lowry powers through to score. Credit: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Nathan Doak celebrates his try with Ethan McIlroy. Credit: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Nathan Doak celebrates his try with Ethan McIlroy. Credit: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

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Magic Mike: Ulster’s Michael Lowry powers through to score. Credit: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

For all the talk that it is the United Rugby Championship’s Welsh brethren who one day aspire to be included in a British and Irish League, perhaps it is Dan McFarland’s Ulster who would be best served throwing their weight behind the notion.

They have, after all, now won 11 of their last 13 against English opposition, this latest triumph over Northampton Saints booking their place in the Champions Cup knock-outs for a third time in four seasons.

And all with a game to spare too, Saturday’s visit from Clermont now about nothing more than seeding.

Since McFarland took the helm in 2018, away day victories in this competition have come with real regularity, six in all through the pool stages. Twice as many as they managed in the four years preceding the Englishman’s appointment. Yesterday in Franklin’s Gardens should go down as one of their better efforts.

If the narrative surrounding the defeat away to Gloucester last season – a result that looks more and more an aberration with each away day success – was about those who were missing, yesterday was a game where the subsequent discourse will be dominated by a victory secured in spite of who was missing.

Rugby is an attritional game, and all teams will struggle with absentees even when not in the middle of a pandemic, but there are times when it can feel as if John Cooney, Iain Henderson and Stuart McCloskey are the engine that drives Ulster forward.

To be without one is detrimental; to be without all three for such an important game in the season was potentially catastrophic. And that’s before you add the likes of Jacob Stockdale, Will Addison and Jordi Murphy.

In the place of such key cogs, it was Ulster’s young backs that came to the fore. While Ulster’s pack naturally deserve credit for going toe-to-toe with such a sizeable Saints unit led well by Courtney Lawes, it was those in jerseys nine through 15 who really stole the show.

The starters boasted an average age of under 23 and it was clear to see the pleasure they take in playing together and each other’s company.

Posing for a picture together as a group after the final whistle, they summoned the unused Ben Moxham from his warm-down, refusing to take the snap until the unit was whole. It felt a fitting moment after what was a real collective effort.

On his return from a nasty shoulder injury sustained in Clermont last month, Robert Baloucoune really caught the eye with the Enniskillen native setting Ulster on their way with an assured finish in the corner in the early minutes. He'd have a big hand in two of their subsequent three scores as w ell, showing an awareness beyond his years to perfectly delay the passes that would create the openings for Nathan Doak and Mike Lowry to go haring across the whitewash.

It was the latter who picked up the ‘St ar of the Match' accolade in a performance that will have his supporters wondering if he could be something of a bolter when Andy Farrell names his Six Nations squad.

There remains a debate about whether the 23-year-old is best deployed at ten or 15 and, as important a position as stand-off is to any side, this was another display that showed his tantalising potential as a full-back.

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Blending his natural speed with excellent footwork, the first batch of post-game stats credited him with 156 metres made and three clean breaks.

If it was those two who were the pick of the bunch, the rest of the ensemble played much more than just a supporting role.

Stewart Moore in filling in for McCloskey had a strong game too while James Hume offered the consistent excellence that has come to be expected of the outside centre.

"Don't get me wrong, they've got a long way to go,” said Dan McFarland of his bevy of emerging home-grown talent. "These guys are far from the finished article and they'll get much, much better and they'll get that through experience.

"But in terms of the talent they have and the desire to improve on a week to week basis is very exciting. Mikey Lowry's the man of the match, everyone's talking about how good Robert Baloucoune is, Rob's been recognised by Andy Farrell, Mikey Lowry's in that conversation (too).

"I've chatted to Andy about Ethan McIlroy and how good he is.

"Obviously Rob got some of the plaudits (here) and Mikey got man of the match, but Ethan has been absolutely tremendous for us.

"He's a really smart rugby player who's got one of the most deadly side-steps that certainly I've seen within our squad. They’re just really good players.

"Obviously James Hume has been producing big performances in big games and I thought Stew Moore played very well tonight. I thought he had a really good game in what are huge boots that Stuart McCloskey left for him in the changing room.”

All contributed to this iteration of Ulster breaking new ground. In both 2019 and 2020 they needed a win on the final day of the pool stages to be sure of advancing to the knock-outs. Now, admittedly into a last-16 rather than the quarter-finals, they've done so without even the need of Saturday’s game with Clermont.

While there are implications to finishing in the top four of the pool rather than the top eight, nobody in Kingspan Stadium will likely sweat too much over the seeding. You don’t need too long a memory to remember when Ulster finished the pool stages ranked number one only to be “rewarded” with a visit from Saracens.

With reigning champions Toulouse going into the final round among the second band of seeds, the most successful European side of all will likely be a booby prize for someone.

Still, after the way they’ve handled the Champions Cup this season, Ulster won’t be overawed by anyone...or anywhere.

Perhaps call it the fearlessness of youth.



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