It’s with some relief that one can turn one’s attention from Ireland back to Ulster, with the harrowing spectacle that was the third test thankfully receding in the rear view mirror. The Irish team used to be the real big deal for me – not these days. It’s almost reached the stage where the Autumn internationals and the 6 Nations are just tedious interludes in the ‘real’ season. Maybe if Ireland weren’t in such dire straits, things would be different, I don’t know – but right now the new signings have all been announced, the players are tweeting about their return to the sleds and sandhills of pre-season training, the first pre-season game is only a month away, and I already can’t wait..
Before looking forward, I thought I’d have a look back at last season, taking my cue from the FRU’s player of the year poll on the right of your screens. With over 2,000 votes, it’s actually quite a big response. There are certainly some quirky outcomes down the rankings – for example were Faloon, Whitten and Kyriacou really more influential than Terblanche or Court? Or Jackson than Best, Cave, Tuohy or Gilroy? I only hope Mrs. Jackson’s fingers have recovered from repeatedly pressing F5 and re-voting! [See Editors Note]
However, I don’t think that the top three of Pienaar, Ferris and Afoa will come as a great surprise, or provoke a great deal of controversy. Ulster’s season had many ups and downs – but most of what was good was heavily influenced by these three, in very different ways.
I think Afoa has been a revelation. I loved BJ, and he was a great servant to Ulster, but I can’t help but feel that we were definitely on the right side of the trade that saw him head south, and Afoa come in. While BJ would probably still have the edge in the scrum, and was no slouch around the park, Afoa has proved that he has the technique and strength to lock a scrum, and in the loose he is something else – as well as having complete mastery over the standard prop’s attacking armoury (sticking his head down, and running into guys etc.) he dances, sidesteps, links play, throws passes, offloads, dummies. He is fantastic to watch. And he is great to have in our squad, for a living reminder, if one were needed, that New Zealand are so good not because they are supermen, or fancy dans – but because they have all, from 1-15, worked so hard and so long at the basic skills of rugby football that they are deeply engrained, and second nature.
Glumly scrolling through my twitter feed on the train back from Twickenham, I came across a tweet that Jerry Flannery – a guy who rarely strays from flippant mickey-taking on twitter – that he had posted during the match, simply saying ‘Afoa is class’, which pretty much sums it up.
From front row to back row, in second place, Stevie Ferris, dodgy knees and all. That he was available for the majority of the season for Ulster and Ireland bears testament to excellent work on the part of the fitness and medical staff at Ulster, as well as to the determination and desire of the man himself. Thinking back over the season, it strikes me that he is a more mature player, and that he has grown superbly into the 6 shirt. I remember when he was still coming up through the underage ranks, there was a bit of buzz around him as a big, freakily fast, ball-carrying number 8 – which was a pretty good description, and largely still is. But what I mean when I say that he has matured is that he now has many more strings to his bow.
His game doesn’t hang off big carries or line breaks, although he is still capable of both; he now goes out and puts in a huge shift of work: making tackles, big and small (or as small as a Ferris tackle can be!); clearing rucks – he can singlehandedly blast a tackle area clean like few other players; and even if defences set up to close him down in midfield, he still routinely takes the ball up and commits defenders. His dominant performance against Munster in the quarter-final epitomised his season, unrelenting, aggressive, passionate. Even if these days we the fans seem to be condemned to having many nervy moments when he gingerly gets to his feet and limps away, or the physio comes on to treat him, I hope that we see as much of him next season as we did last season.
And on to number one, Ruan Pienaar. I think it’s taken a while (a) for him to fully find his feet and his place at Ulster, good though he was the season before; and (b) for the fans to truly come to appreciate him. He is pure class, that’s all there is to say really. He makes everything look easy, his passes flying from a flicked wrist, his mountainous box kicks, his loping half-breaks. And of course he is a game-winner, amply demonstrating the poise and nerve to close games out with big pressure kicks.
But more than all that, what struck me last season was his desire. The foreign players who come in to play rugby at any given club always say the right things about the club, the local fans, the area etc. etc. But some seem to really find their place there – and it has seemed to me over the past season that he has become more at home here. Yes the weather might be crap and all that, but it’s away from the SA rugby goldfish bowl with all its politics and hassle. He’s playing great rugby, in his preferred position, in an improving team, and more than that, he is treated with great respect by his team-mates and fans alike, and is viewed as an influential team-leader. And the great thing is he has relished the responsibility – I read an article by a South African journalist around the time of the final, where he spoke of Pienaar finally showing that he can handle pressure and big matches, which came as a bit of a surprise to me, because I had kind of taken it for granted.
I realise I have created a little narrative here, from scant evidence, about him liking the place he’s at – he is a private guy, and in his media appearances he sticks to fairly bland platitudes (not a criticism by the way, it’s a perfectly valid approach) – and I’m not saying that when his contract’s up he would chose to live here or anything like that, but I have just got the feeling that right now it’s working for him. He really wanted it against Munster, and in the final as well, and it was great to see – while he never shirks his defensive duties, he has always struck me as a player who puts up with tackling, rather than relishing it, but in the second half of last season, particularly in the big matches, he was throwing himself around, making some great cover tackles, and even some big hits. Long may it continue – he is one of the best footballers ever to grace Ravenhill, and I would have him around as long as he is willing to stay.
Just before signing off, a word on the next three in the list – Marshall, Henry and Wallace. Marshall had a good season, although he may regret building a reputation as an impact player off the bench. He certainly made his biggest impacts on matches as a sub, with a couple of electric appearances off the bench, notably against Edinburgh away and Leicester at home. With a bit more control and discipline, he could have a big season, although with Pienaar fit he will probably always struggle for starts. Henry was excellent; I admit to having been sceptical as to the attempt to play him at 7, but he was arguably the most consistent Irish openside all year. Why he was overlooked for international selection remains a mystery to me. And Wallace had possibly his best season for Ulster, staunch in defence, still plenty of pace, and an eye for the gap; he’s in good nick, I hope for another 2-3 seasons from him, and if they’re as good as last season, we’ll be well set!