At the question and answer sessions with Bryn Cunningham back in February, Ulster season ticket holders were told of an impending mass exodus during the off-season.
So far, Tommy Bowe announced his retirement in January before news broke that Callum Black had signed a contract to return to Worcester Warriors. Just two weeks ago, Paul Marshall announced that he too was hanging up his boots while Andrew Trimble published a statement confirming that this season will be his last yesterday. Robbie Diack is the latest to announce that he will be leaving the province.
Combined with the losses of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding as well as the departures of Ruan Pienaar and Roger Wilson last season and the uncertainty surrounding the future of Jared Payne, Ulster will field a virtually unrecognizable team at the start of next season.
For a few seasons around the appointment of Les Kiss the word ‘transition’ was thrown about so much that it almost devalued the word to a point where the province was in a constant transitioning phase. Now however, Ulster seems set to lurch into another phase which will certainly have an impact on next season.
Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe have been synonymous with Ulster Rugby despite Tommy’s four-year spell with the Ospreys from 2008-2012. Tommy made a try-scoring debut in 2004 against Connacht, going onto score another 61 tries for Ulster while Trimble made his debut in September 2005 and scored eight tries in his first season.
It’s hard to believe that Trimble was often unfairly overlooked for Ireland when he received 70 international caps, one more than Tommy Bowe. He thrived under Joe Schmidt’s defensive system and his renaissance included a magnificent Six Nations in 2014 and during the match against the All Blacks in Chicago.
At a time when Julian Savea was walking over all in front of him, Trimble gave him no space and pulled off this wonderful tackle as well as another massive hit on Liam Squire:
Chris Ashton also felt the full force of Trimble in the 2014 Heineken Cup quarter final:
Undoubtedly the highlight of Tommy Bowe’s career would the Grand Slam try in 2009 but he too leaves Kingspan Stadium amongst everyone’s hearts. Bowe departs as the Celtic League/PRO12/PRO14/whatever-you-want-to-call-it top try scorer, nine more than Tim Visser in second place.
Neither Paul Marshall nor Robbie Diack ever got the plaudits to the extent that Bowe and Trimble. Paul Marshall debuted in September 2006 and his bonus point try against Leicester Tigers in 2012 will live long in the memory and allowed. Robbie Diack amassed 205 Ulster appearances – one less than Marshall – after making his debut in September 2008.
Diack was imperious in the lineout and also had the soft hands that I always thought would suit a fast tempo. On the other hand, too often he was hit back by the opposition defence. His soft hands allowed him to gather an excellent cross kick from Paddy Jackson against Montpellier in 2014. Like Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller, Diack arrived in Belfast as a South African but will leave an Ulsterman.
I remember my reaction to the announcement of Charles Piutau and then seeing him in action for the first time on Kingspan turf. Without a doubt Piutau is one of the most individually talented players to ever pull on an Ulster, however he hasn’t fully displayed all his talents this season. His ability was evident from the minute he joined; his intercept against Scarlets in his first match was a thing of beauty.
One thing we can credit him for is the hasty development of Jacob Stockdale who has become Ireland’s in-form winger in two seasons. Piutau has allowed Stockdale to thrive and this was evident in the Lurgan man’s score against Connacht in November 2017.
Where do Ulster go from here?
During that ‘night with Bryn’ we were promised to see the academy play a part in bolstering the squad and that seems to be the case with Ulster having only announced the signings of Marty Moore, Will Addison and Jordi Murphy to date. A total of six backline players have left or will be leaving Ulster with only Addison signed as a direct replacement.
Nevertheless, the talented Angus Curtis made his debut against Glasgow and will receive a significant amount of playing time next season. Likewise, James Hume and Michael Lowry of Banbridge RFC will be knocking on the door of the senior set up after both having injury problems this season.
I was surprised that Ulster did not bring Rory Scholes back to the province after a season at Edinburgh and another at Connacht. The former Campbellian provided capable cover at wing and fullback during his final season with Ulster in the 2015/16 campaign. It was announced at the end of March that Scholes would remain at the western province for the 2018-19 season.
With Scholes not coming back to the province, Ulster will have to look to within their ranks. Mark Keane made a try-scoring first appearance against the Barbarians at the end of last season while Angus Kernohan featured for Ireland U20s in the most recent Six Nations. Both will likely travel to France for the U20 World Cup in June. David Busby and Jack Owens are slightly older but will be hoping to lay a claim for the vacant jersey in the back three position. Rob Lyttle has averaged the most metres per carry of any Ulster player this season and will be the favourite to fill one of the wing berths when he returns from injury.
The emergence of Matty Rea and Nick Timoney in the pack represent the real positives this season and are likely to establish themselves as regular first team players in the near future. Matthew Dalton, Adam McBurney and Tom O’Toole have had game time recently. Joe Dunleavy, Tommy O’Hagan and Marcus Rea have not had match day experience, but both should receive game time next season.
Like so many of Ulster’s seasons recently, it looks like next year will be another part of the ‘transition’ phase. Regardless of what the next 12 months bring, we can be sure that we will continue to see more of the talented young players in the academy and hopefully then will this kick into motion that will see Ulster bear fruits in the coming years.