Ulster’s defensive frailties have been well documented over the festive period and they are only ten league tries shy of equalling last season’s tries conceded total.

The defensive system has come under intense scrutiny and Les Kiss is bearing the brunt of the vocal criticism but does the problem have a much more straightforward solution?

Ulster, for quite a few years now, have had depth at centre to the extent where is the envy of the other provinces. This season we have seen Ulster’s centre partnership chop and change with seven combinations being used.

Only four times have Ulster retained the same pairing – Stuart McCloskey and Tommy Bowe lined up in weeks one and two against the Cheetahs and Treviso and again in weeks 12 and 13 against Dragons and Harlequins. McCloskey partnered Luke Marshall in the back to back matches against Connacht and Wasps in weeks six and seven. Darren Cave formed a partnership with McCloskey for the winter matches against Munster and Leinster this month.

Injuries do play a factor in the lack of a consistent partnership and over the 18 matches so far this season, barely any cohesion has been created between the players.

Against Connacht, Louis Ludik found it difficult against Bundee Aki and his outside backs. This was evident as early as the second minute when Ulster’s backline found themselves narrower than expected, giving the home side a simple overlap against Jacob Stockdale. Throughout that match, Tiernan O’Halloran and his wingers found themselves in acres of space and they punished Ulster for it.

Earlier in the season we saw Leinster inflict Ulster’s only home defeat. For Luke McGrath’s second try, Ulster’s defence was caught flat-footed. From turnover ball, Adam Byrne broke the gain line between the two centres and offloaded to Sean O’Brien. The damage was already done as Ulster were unable to recover and Luke McGrath capitalised with a try.

The Dragons got success attacking down the flanks. Tommy Bowe started at 13 and Bernard Jackman’s side did a good job of exposing the space between Bowe and his winger. On one instance, Bowe raced out of the line to exposed Craig Gilroy. Dragons would have certainly scored if the grubber in behind the defence did not bounce into touch.

A lot of things went wrong in the away match against Leinster but the most notable thing for me was the lack of communication between Darren Cave at 13 and Andrew Trimble at 14. Similar to the Connacht match Leinster’s back three often found themselves one-on-one against Trimble as their centres ran dummy lines to fix Stuart McCloskey and Cave. For Jordan Larmour’s first score, Ulster’s most capped player shot out of the defensive line leaving a gaping hole for Fergus McFadden for the line break.

We saw examples of excellent defence however with the visit of La Rochelle. As noted in my post-match article, Ulster upped the intensity in defence in the second half. On two occasions Louis Ludik chose the perfect timing and made the tackle to stop the La Rochelle momentum. Not only do those tackles put the offensive team on the back foot, but they also act as a great rallying call for the crowd.

The Scarlets’ game showed a different perspective to Ulster’s defence. Ulster knew they couldn’t afford a broken game as the reigning Guinness PRO12 champions would have picked them apart. The drift defence has come under a huge amount of criticism since that game as it has not been properly deployed often. Yes, it did help that Scarlets were off the boil and had limited possession – much to the credit of Ulster – but Ulster allowed their visitors to gain ground in a controlled fashion. On only one occasion Ulster were caught napping which allowed Johnny McNicholl a try.

What is Ulster’s best centre combination?

It’s tough to nail down Ulster’s best combination as only Stuart McCloskey has spent any considerable time in one position.

These are the three partnerships which have been tested in at least four matches:

12. McCloskey

13. Bowe

Wins v Cheetahs, Treviso (A) and Harlequins (A) Draw v Dragons
12. McCloskey

13. Marshall

Wins v Scarlets, Connacht and Wasps Loss v Leinster (H)
12. McCloskey

13. Cave

Wins v Dragons and Munster Loss v La Rochelle and Leinster (A)

 

It’s hard for partnerships to develop whenever they’re given very few opportunities. Darren Cave has shown that he still a street-wise operator and would be my choice for the outside centre position given that Luke Marshall is currently injured. At the start of the season, Tommy Bowe impressed me in that channel offensively. Bowe spent considerable time at 13 during his four seasons with the Ospreys and also started the final Lions test in 2009 at that position. Defensively however, he has been exposed on several occasions this season.

Ulster face a difficult run at the end of the season, with visits to Edinburgh, Munster, Scarlets and Ospreys all yet to occur. When injuries don’t hinder selection policy, Ulster need to be consistent with their partnerships not just in the centre but all over the pitch. Looking at the Scarlets centres this season, while they too have tried seven different combinations, but a partnership of Scott Williams and Hadleigh Parkes have started eight matches in the league and Europe.

Looking ahead to our final European group stage match of the year, Wasps are going through a bit of an injury crisis. After a shock defeat to Harlequins they need a miracle to qualify from the group. Like Ulster, they are vulnerable in the outside channels but possess a great attacking threat. Ulster’s centres need to be singing from the same hymn sheet if they are to record a famous victory on Sunday.

 

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