Ulster's young guns show class
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe had a real glint in his eye following his young side’s richly deserved draw against big-name Leicester Tigers at a sun-drenched Ravenhill.
Suggesting that one or two of Ulster’s star turns may just be feeling the heat currently being generated by their understudies, Anscombe grinned: “I think there’s a few boys not playing who were watching and they might be starting to get a bit nervous.”
The Kiwi was happy to buck the convention of not singling out individuals.
Remarkably, the name of one of those he highlighted — centre Chris Farell whom he described as having had “a superb game today” — did not even figure in the season’s 36-man panel featured in the programme.
Loose-head Callum Black was another, Anscombe’s view of the prop’s contribution being: “If I had to single anyone out in the first two games it would be him. I think he has been absolutely outstanding.” He named others, too — Peter Nelson, Michael Heaney, Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and Michael Allen.
To date, the whizz-kids have chalked up Ulster’s first-ever win in France and, by way of encore, drawn against English rugby’s most successful club side.
“I’m getting a better feel now, after two games, of what we’ve got and what our depth’s like,” Anscombe said.
Turning the spotlight on his two international tight-heads, both of whom featured on Saturday, he pointed out: “When you’ve got a Declan Fitzpatrick and you’ve got a John Afoa, they hopefully will bring the best out of each other by wanting that starting position.”
Both scrummaged superbly, with Irish international Fitzpatrick doing a 25-minute shift as per the IRFU’s Player Management Programme, before being replaced by New Zealand World Cup winner Afoa.
No sooner had the former All Black entered the fray than referee George Clancy awarded Ulster a penalty try, converted by Niall O’Connor.
The Ulster scrum was impressive throughout and Lewis Stevenson and Johann Muller excelled in the lineout.
Not surprisingly, captain Muller was pretty upbeat after the match, though his overall enthusiasm included a reality check.
“At stages today we played really well and at stages we lost our shape and didn’t play as we wanted to,” he admitted.
“But hats off to the young guys. A lot of them are putting their hands up and a lot of them really want that jersey.
“I think it’s really healthy for a squad environment that there’s so much competition for every position and all the boys are really pushing hard for a starting place.”
Stevenson, Muller’s second-row partner in the starting line-up, was equally positive, his assessment of the display against last term’s beaten Aviva Premiership finalists being: “I think it really shows the strength in depth in our squad now.
“We’ve got our Irish internationals — guys like Dan Tuohy, Rory Best, Tom Court — all to come back and that strength in depth is going to be really, really important to us as we try to compete in the Rabo (Direct PRO12) and Heineken (Cup).”
Expressing his delight at Anscombe’s commitment to select on form rather than reputation, Stevenson said: “Nobody can rest on their laurels.
“Everyone has to work hard and put in a really good shift every week.
“I think you can see the way the guys played last week against Bayonne and again today.
Hopefully we’re going to put pressure on those internationals and that is creating a really good sense of competition within the squad.
“That was pretty much the starting pack that Leicester will be going into the Premiership with, so I think that’s a really good benchmark for us, something to build on.”
Having turned round trailing 7-0, the Tigers fought back and achieved parity in the 66th minute.
Wing Vereniki Goneva got over for try, to which George Ford added the conversion.
Seven minutes from the end the east Midlanders moved ahead when Thomas Waldrom touched down from a surge off a line-out, with Ford again on target. But Ulster had the last word, with Chris Cochrane scoring under the posts to leave Jackson with an easy conversion to equalise a minute from the final whistle.
Ulster Schools host their Lancashire counterparts in the annual Atkins Trophy match today at Campbell College (2.30pm), looking to hold onto the trophy they managed to win last season.
Ulster Schools line-up as follows: Jack Owens (Campbell College); Josh Fullerton (Campbell College), John McClure (RBAI), Rory Bell (RBAI), Rory Campbell (RBAI); Conor Shiels (Coleraine AI), Aaron Kennedy (Banbridge Academy); Michael Lagan (Methodist College), Andrew Shaw (Bangor GS), Aaron Gilkinson (Wallace HS), Alexander Thompson (Banbridge Academy), Thomas Donnan (Down HS); Daniel Dass (BRA), Andrew McGrath (RBAI), Daryl Morton (RS Armagh, captain). Replacements: Scott Finlay (Sullivan Upper), Chris Griffiths (Sullivan Upper), Adam Kirk (Ballymena Academy), Lewis Benson (Belfast HS), Calvin Kernohan (Ballymena Academy), James Gallagher (Methodist College), Jack Milligan (RS Dungannon), Jordan Garford (Belfast HS), Connor McKee (Methodist College).