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Why Ulster are the Arsenal of rugby, explains Stephen Ferris

 

By David Kelly

The Phoenix Park obelisk could not be a more apt monument beneath which to discuss Ulster Rugby's latest stark failure.

Ulster met their Waterloo in Coventry last weekend; a few days later, one of their most famous sons, Stephen Ferris, clambers up the steps to sift through the entrails of another ruinous European escapade.

The famous old Duke won his battle though; Ulster seem incapable of firing a shot.

Even when they do, they usually follow it up by shooting themselves in the foot. Ferris, as usual, shoots from the hip.

"Everyone would agree, from fans to management, players and ex-players, that there is just something not right," said the former Ireland and Lions back-row.

"With the amount of talent that they do have, they are the Arsenal of Irish rugby. They are the underachievers. They can beat anybody on their day.

"They can physically dominate a La Rochelle pack at home but then back it up the next week with a terrible performance against Wasps, getting physically dominated at every collision and every breakdown and then when they did have the ball they didn't know what to do with it.

"Eddie O'Sullivan calls it the bungee cord, Ulster are up one week, down the next. But if you are going to try and sustain any kind of success, you can't be playing like that from one week to the next. It seems to be like all the players are singing off different hymn sheets on the pitch.

"Everybody isn't buying into what the game-plan is because I didn't see a game-plan. When I saw the terrible weather conditions, I was thinking happy days, I was rubbing my hands.

"I knew this Ulster team could match the Wasps team up front, make it an arm-wrestle, win 9-6 and you're into the quarter-finals. But they did everything but that. When they had the ball, they just didn't know what to do with it."

That's the small picture. The bigger one is worrying still. Ulster remain reliant on overseas talent and, despite the emergence of Jacob Stockdale, a sole beacon in a dismal time for a production line that has scarcely produced any internationals in recent times.

All Black World Cup winner Stephen Donald has pulled out of a move - Ferris suggesting due to Ulster's European exit more than a reported injury - and he feels that young Johnny McPhillips should be given his head as Ulster seek to re-engage with a dwindling cultural identity.

"Any time Johnny McPhillips has had an opportunity he has looked bright. Maybe it is a better thing to stick that €200,000 in the bank, leave Stephen Donald alone and try to get the younger guys in to give them experience," he said.

"With the Irish guys away now, who do Ulster look to for leadership?

"It starts from the top down, it's not all about Les Kiss. The Munster game at home, Ulster had one Ulsterman from 1-10," he added.

"Okay there are a few Irish-qualified players but they are all from overseas.

"Gone are the days when you had David Humphreys and Kieran Campbell at half-back, Roger Wilson, Stephen Ferris and Neil Best in the back-row. It all seems to have got away.

"The question I would ask is are one of those (overseas) players better than the young Academy player lining out for Dungannon or Ballymena every week? You walk into the Kingspan Stadium and people are starting to talk about watching South Africa's B team instead of watching an Ulster team."

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