With the arrival of Ulster at the Arms Park on Saturday evening I’ve asked some people connected with the Northern Irish side to give me their views on the Belfast-based side.
Freelance journalist and Ulster blogger Adam McKendry (@admckendry http://thehoundonthehill.blogspot.co.uk/) and Ulster fan Laura Johnston (@LauraJ2803) offer their thoughts on last season, this season, new signings, the team and this week’s game.
How would you sum up your 2015/16 season overall?
W 14 L 8 PF 488 PA 307 TF 61 TA 29 TBP 8 LBP 5
Ulster finished 4th in the Pro12, losing to Leinster in the semi-finals
AK: In a word? Disappointing.
Every year we think it could be our season to end our trophy drought but we manage to throw it away in the most bizarre fashion imaginable. Last season we went on a brilliant run towards the tail end of April, including a remarkable 46-26 win away to the Ospreys, then proceeded to not turn up (figuratively, not literally) for our semi-final against Leinster and crash out without a whimper.
The damage had been done earlier in the season when we couldn’t string together two victories in a row before December. In all honesty it was a typical Ulster season – flashes of promise that inevitably ended in a May heartbreak.
LJ: Our 2015/16 season had a few highs and lows and a few nail biting moments.
The highs were beating Toulouse home (38-0) and away (25-23), beating Oyonnax home (56-3) and away (24-23 after being 23-0 down and going down to a fantastic 50m kick from Paddy Jackson to win the game…very nail biting) and beating Leinster at home (30-6).
The lows would be the narrow defeats to the Scarlets and Munster at home (you really should win your home games) and the defeats to Saracens in the Champions Cup.
We had good run in the last 4 games of the regular season against tough opposition but we failed at the final hurdle of making the Pro12 Final. Another semi-final defeat to Leinster at the RDS.
Are you pleased with your new signings?
Charles Piutau (Wasps), Rodney Ah You (Connacht), Kieran Treadwell (Harlequins), Marcell Coetzee (Sharks), Brett Herron (Bath), Angus Lloyd (Trinity College Dublin)
AK: One we’re not happy with is Marcell Coetzee who got injured for the Sharks two weeks after we announced his signing and won’t be back until the end of January/early February! When he comes back he’ll be a huge help for our back row though.
Another was your new boy, Anton Peikrishvili, who got injured a week after joining us – as injury cover!!! (Yeah, cheers for him! Ed.)
As we already knew, Charles Piutau is a class apart, his speed and physicality make him a constant danger and he has the ability to draw two defenders to him to create space for others – if you get a chance watch his offload to Jacob Stockdale for his try in our pre-season friendly against Northampton, it’s sublime! If we can get him into space more he can be even more of a threat, but we’ve struggled with that recently.
Rodney Ah You came over from Connacht and has been a pleasant surprise too. We appear to have fixed his scrummaging issues that he had in Galway and he adds another ball carrying option to our pack, which is very welcome.
Other signings are the likes of Kieran Treadwell (lock) and Brett Herron (fly-half, who will start against you on Saturday) who are two young players for the future but have done alright since arriving.
LJ: Charles is an outstanding player and some of the things he does on the pitch are so mesmerising.
Looking forward to seeing Marcell pull on the white shirt in the new year and hoping he can bring a lot more competition at the break down and a lot of go forward ball.
Rodney Ah You has been a great addition to the Ulster front row and he has taken on the mantle of running through people from from Nick Williams.
Haven’t seen too much of Kieran Treadwell, Brett Herron and Angus Lloyd this season yet but they all look like good young prospects.
Where would you say your team’s strengths and weakness lie?
AK: Our strength would definitely be in the back line. We could lose two wingers and two centres to injury and still be able to field an all-international back line such is the depth we possess. Ruan Pienaar is world class at scrum-half and Paddy Jackson has matured into a 10 who can carry a game – something he struggled with a lot in his early years.
The weakness would be our pack isn’t big enough to create the gaps for the backs to exploit. Our scrum is solid and our line-out is fine, but in terms of ball carrying threats we are severely lacking. Ah You and Iain Henderson, when fit, are the only two players we can rely on to make constant yards – Sean Reidy can do a bit of carrying and Coetzee should do some too – but the rest of the pack struggle to make any consistent breaks. Losing Nick Williams to you guys took away the vast majority of our go forward ball.
LJ: Our strength would be our defence at the moment and our weakness would be our finishing. We have spent so much time over the last few games in our opposition’s 22 and come away with no points.
How do you rate your coach?
Former Australian rugby league international Les Kiss has been at Ulster since last season
AK: Les Kiss is still finding his feet to a degree because he joined after the World Cup last year and was immediately thrust into our preparations for the Champions Cup which wasn’t ideal. It’s only this season he’s sat down and actually assessed what he has available to him and what he has to work with.
It’s been mixed as to how we’ve gone under him. When he first took over things completely turned around – within the space of three weeks we won our European double-header over Toulouse despite losing half our squad to injury and we won away at Connacht, the only team to do so last season. Then we fell apart a bit, losing at home to Munster and nearly away to Oyonnax before our odd finish to the PRO12 as I already mentioned.
This season it looked like taking pre-season had helped drastically but recent results suggest that he still has things to work on as a Director of Rugby. There’s still a way to go, but there are positive signs.
I think it will only be at the end of next season that we can fully judge how Kiss is doing – he’ll have brought in a couple of players he wants and has targeted personally, and he’ll have had two full seasons with the squad under his belt. So far his start has been good, but not great.
LJ: Les is a man who has good rugby values and is not afraid to speak his mind and is very genuine. This is his first full season as coach but unfortunately injuries have prevented him fielding a settled team. I think he is a coach who can bring silverware to Ulster.
Who do you see as your star player?
AK: Without a shadow of a doubt it’s Ruan Pienaar. The man oozes class at scrum-half and when he’s not in the team there’s a considerable difference in how we perform. He seems to glide across the pitch, always in the right place at the right time and he adds an excellent kicking option both out of hand and from the tee if necessary. Next season will be extremely interesting to see how we cope without him.
LJ: Our star player is hard to pinpoint just one … so two would be Ruan Pienaar (gutted he’s leaving) and Charles Piutau (why did the All Blacks let him go?).
How has this season gone so far?
Ulster are 6th, with 5 wins and 3 losses leaving them with 23 points
AK: Well we started like a house on fire and then proceeded to fall apart!
The first four games of the season were excellent, we were playing some good rugby and we picked up big wins at home to the Scarlets and away to Glasgow, which had our confidence sky-high both within the team and the fanbase. We scraped past the Ospreys and then everything fell apart – we lost away to Connacht for our first defeat of the PRO12 and then managed to throw away a lead in the last ten minutes away to Bordeaux and come away from the game with absolutely nothing.
Again, we scraped past Exeter at home and then proceeded to throw away another lead against Munster before being taken apart in Edinburgh by a side that had lost to Zebre a week before, which marked a new low for us.
Overall a season that began with so much promise has gone completely off the rails. We haven’t had enough significant injuries to use that as an excuse, we’re simply in a bad run of form.
LJ: The season started off well but over the last few games results haven’t gone our way. I’m hoping that the Zebre game being called off last week due to a frozen pitch isn’t going to be to Ulster’s detriment. It would have been good to restart our season with a home win.
What is the aim for this season?
AK: Silverware, as it always is. Unfortunately we don’t have the resources to compete with the big spenders in Europe, so our best chance is the PRO12 where we feel we have the squad to compete with anyone on our day. However, after our recent results I would be happy with the top four and a rebuild for next season.
LJ: Our aim for the season is to try our best to win our remaining Champions cup games and get a home semi-final in the Pro12. Our main aim is to reach the Pro12 Final.
Prediction for our game?
AK: I’m leaning on the fence slightly because our game against Zebre was abandoned last week. I don’t know if that puts at an advantage as we will be fresher than yourselves or if you’ll be at an advantage having played last week after the break. I think we can still win this game, but I’m going to have to go for a Cardiff win unfortunately, but by no more than 7 points.
LJ: Hoping Ulster get back to winning ways but could see it being a tight game about six points in it. (To Cardiff of course! Ed.)
Thanks again to Laura and Adam for some great input this week, very important game for both sides, but let’s hope for an exciting game with plenty of quality rugby on show. Come on Cardiff!!