Ulster continue to make strides

Rich Dore
12 June 2019

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The 2018-19 Guinness PRO14 season was undoubtedly one of huge progress for Ulster Rugby, who took giant steps forward in just 12 months.

Finishing fourth in Conference B and making it to the European Champions Cup through a play-off win in 2018, this year has seen rapid progression from that point.

With Dan McFarland taking over at the beginning of the season, Ulster finished second in their Conference, also making it to the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals.

Key strengths

With McFarland installed over the summer, perhaps Ulster’s biggest success this year is that they’ve nailed down a structured style of play that they’ve committed too, with excellent results.

McFarland’s men have averaged the most passes in the Championship this season (194.7 per game) while they’ve averaged the second-most amount of carries – 151.7 per game, just behind Leinster’s average of 155.2 carries.

Ulster have turned into a side who turn the ball over a lot – only Cardiff Blues doing so more often – while they’ve been easy on the eye, also.

A backline that includes the likes of Michael Lowry, Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune was always going to entertain, with only two teams beating more defenders than Ulster and only three making more offloads.

Areas to improve

With all that possession in terms of passes and carries, perhaps the next stage for Ulster is to convert it into points, with only four Guinness PRO14 teams registering fewer points over the season.

You might expect that having McFarland deeper into his reign will help with this next stage of the building process, having made an impressive start.

Ulster’s season came to a juddering halt in the semi-finals, where they fell to 50-20 defeat to Glasgow Warriors, and the aim for next season must be to improve on this.

Whether that’s by accumulating more points in the regular season to gain a home semi-final or tightening up when they get to the final four, McFarland will have a plan.

Star moment

There have been some stellar moments for Ulster this season – just look back to September, when John Cooney’s last-gasp kick edged Edinburgh 30-29, home wins over Leinster and Munster, or that quarter-final win over Connacht.

But perhaps their most scintillating display came in April as Edinburgh were taken apart in their own back yard, Ulster winning  29-7.

The win sealed second place in Conference B and came courtesy of tries for Jordi Murphy, Baloucoune, Rob Lyttle and Billy Burns – the perfect away display when the pressure was on.

Breakout player

Lowry and Baloucoune have both been excellent young stars for Ulster but perhaps prop Eric O’Sullivan has been the most significant, with 19 impressive displays and plenty of added power to the pack.

Lowry and O’Sullivan, previously of the academy, have now signed their first senior contracts, with the prop having made his senior debut against Scarlets on the opening day of the 2018-19 campaign.

Key man

Having been voted both the club’s and supporters’ player of the season, it’s clear to see that those in the know consider centre Stuart McCloskey to be one of, if not, their key man.

McCloskey has at times found the centre path with the national setup clogged with star talent ahead of him but has quietly enjoyed an incredible season at the Kingspan.

He’s made 19 Guinness PRO14 appearances and scored four tries but it’s his all-round game that sees the hulking midfielder collect the end of season awards.

That includes being second only to Bill Mata in terms of carries (239) and having made the fifth-highest number of offloads, while also featuring in the Championship’s Top 25s for metres made, defenders beaten, turnovers won and clean breaks.

Who’s in for 2019-20?

McFarland has strengthened his squad for the new season with the acquisition of Bill Johnston, Matt Faddes, Sam Carter, Gareth Milasinovich – and perhaps most key, Jack McGrath.

Ireland and British & Irish Lions prop McGrath is just 29 and a world-class front row, looking for something different after almost a decade at Leinster and will no doubt make a huge impact.

Alongside O’Sullivan and Lowry, prop Tom O’Toole and back Angus Curtis have also signed senior contracts, while Baloucoune, James Hume, Angus Kernohan, Zack McCall and Marcus Rea have been offered development deals.

Who’s out for 2019-20?

Caleb Montgomery has moved on to pastures new at Worcester Warriors while David Busby, Peter Nelson and Jack Owens have been released.

But the men who will be missed most by the Kingspan Stadium faithful next season will be long-term skipper Rory Best and club stalwart Darren Cave.

Best has given his all in 15 years at the club and Cave has been there almost as long, the reliable back holding the joint record as Ulster’s most-capped player alongside Andrew Trimble – 229.

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