We’re already one month into the Guinness PRO14 season and Ulster sit in a predictable third spot in Conference B. In my season preview I wrote how the number of wins in the opening games would banish all memory of the 55 point drubbing received by Northampton in pre-season. Are Ulster’s misfortunes in preseason all but forgotten or has the dismal display in Italy revealed a few cracks in the Ulster armour?
We’ve been here before. Last season Ulster went unbeaten in September, toppling Glasgow in Scotstoun, eventual champions Scarlets as well as Ospreys, Newport Gwent Dragons and Benetton Treviso. Unfortunately, Ulster’s performances were not cohesive and they stumbled across the line in many of the games. After the incredible victory over Glasgow Ulster travelled to Galway but were casually disposed of and lost 30-25 despite a second half comeback to make the score look slightly more respectable. This prompted a run of only four victories in 13 matches.
Ulster weren’t able to remain undefeated in September this year having failed to topple Zebre at Stadio Lanfranchi at the weekend. A week previous, Ulster were looking confident and sitting at the top of the group but now there are a few question marks over this current Ulster side as they slip to below Scarlets and Leinster.
With the ball in hand, Ulster look a different spectacle compared to previous years. Stuart McCloskey leads the way with 70 carries while Charles Piutau has made the most metres. Jono Gibbes has improved the Ulster pack and this is noticeable, more so in the home games. Ulster’s speed at the breakdown is quicker, allowing the backline front foot ball.
Ulster have looked ferocious at Kingspan Stadium. They’ve played at a tempo that the opposition has not been able to live with. The signing of John Cooney has aided this as he has provided quick ball to the backs. He’s formed a successful early partnership with Christian Lealiifano in such a short space of time despite coming unstuck in Italy at the weekend.
There’s been no sign of Jacob Stockdale’s progress slowing down in the first month of the season. Despite missing the matches against Cheetahs and Zebre, only Stuart McCloskey has beaten more defenders than newly capped Irish international. Stockdale’s three tries sits him alongside Andrew Trimble as Ulster’s leading try scorer this season.
In a combined league table, Ulster rank seventh for both tries conceded and points conceded. Ulster’s defensive worries are still prevalent and are emphasized when home comforts are not available. In hindsight, Ulster have not had a difficult start: Cheetahs are off the back of a Super Rugby season, Scarlets were underwhelming at Kingspan Stadium and Dragons are in the middle of major upheaval having recently come under the control of the Welsh Rugby Union.
The Scarlets’ result gave everyone a massive lift as it was clear that Ulster were able to execute a game plan with the opposition in mind. Christian Lealiifano expertly pulled the strings from outhalf to keep the reigning champions pinned back in their own half. It is worrying however to see Ulster fail to adapt to Zebre’s freakishly fast defensive line speed. I don’t recall Ulster attempting a chip in behind to get the Zebre defence on the back foot.
The defeat against Zebre opened old wounds for the defensive coach. Kiss has been the subject of a lot of criticism from the Ulster fan-base over the last number of months. When Joe Barakat departed these shores before Christmas last year, Kiss assumed the role of defence coach. A lot of pressure has been heaped upon the shoulders of Les Kiss and every loss that Ulster suffer, their Director of Rugby comes under even more scrutiny. The former Australian Rugby League star cannot afford another poor season otherwise the Ulster Rugby hierarchy may begin looking for his successor.
October is where the season gets serious for Ulster Rugby. Two interprovincial derbies and the commencement of the European Champions Cup where Ulster face Wasps and La Rochelle in the opening matches lie in wait. Three victories in the home matches against Connacht, Wasps and Leinster would stand Ulster in good stead and is a realistic target considering Ulster’s recent home record.
The next match against Connacht is crucial as Ulster cannot afford to slip any more momentum. Connacht almost shocked Scarlets at Parc-y-Scarlets at the weekend, but fell away after a comical mistake gifted Tadhg Beirne a try. It suits Ulster to play against sides who like to throw the ball about, so I don’t believe Connacht will shock the home side.
While Wasps have not been faring well in this season’s Aviva Premiership, they have the talent within their squad to punish shabby defending. On the other hand, La Rochelle have made a very good start to their season. At half time they were 43-6 up against the champions, Clermont Auvergne, ending the game on the right side of a 52-20 thumping.
Ulster have showed signs of improvement during the off season. After the five September games last season, Ulster had scored 12 tries, five of which were against Dragons. Compared to now, Ulster have scored nine more. I don’t think we will revisit the dark days of last season but we’re far from perfect however it is a start to see a smile on the faces of the players once again.