RaboDirect PRO 12
RaboDirect PRO12 preview: Ulster
Ulster welcome home three former players and also have a new man in charge. After a successful run in Europe last year, expectation is high in Ravenhill.
We continue our countdown to the start of the RaboDirect PRO12 season with Ulster. The 2006 champions welcome back former players and have a new coach at the helm.
By Declan Whooley
The Ulstermen upset the odds to reach the Heineken Cup final last year, but they faded towards the end of the league season. Can the return signings inspire the Ravenhill outfit to further glory? Or will new Head Coach Mark Anscombe struggle to gel his team together?
Head Coach Mark Anscombe
Despite a long European run, Ulster failed to reach the play-off stages of the league yet again. In contention for the majority of the season, they trailed off towards the end, losing their final three league games to their Irish rivals.
Ulster won two out of their six inter-pros, at home to Connacht and Munster and suffered big defeats at the RDS and Thomond Park. Edinburgh will testify to the power and pace of Ulster in full flight, conceding 80 points to Brian McLaughlin’s men over the two games.
Moment of the season
Ulster emphatically beat Munster on a cold night in Ravenhill last December and John Afoa's first try for his new team capped off a well-worked team score.
Tommy Bowe will have the women flocking to Ravenhill and the men rejoicing. He decided against French suitors to return home. Back-rower Roger Wilson also comes home after a successful stint with Northampton, as does Niall O’Connor after a season with Connacht. South African born hooker Rob Herring joins from Western Province and was part of the London Irish Academy three years ago.
Key Player – Ruan Pienaar
The Springbok is the heartbeat of the team and was the single biggest influence on the side last season. Now in his third year at Ravenhill, the South African orchestrates the attack from scrum-half, and on occasion out-half. He has scored 209 points in the league, and is unerring from the tee as many teams have found out to their cost.
Paul Marshall is biding his time as an able deputy, and profits when the Bloemfontein native is switched to the number 10 jersey. Ulster have a highly competitive front row, arguably the most balanced back-row unit in Ireland, and now welcome Bowe back to Ravenhill, but Pienaar holds the key to Ulster success.
Young player to watch – Chris Farrell
The Dungannon centre made his debut against Leinster last season, and also appeared as a substitute against Munster. The 19 year-old was a key member of the Ireland U-20 team that defeated France and England to claim fifth in the IRB Junior World Championship in South Africa and new coach mark Anscombe has started Farrell in both pre-season friendlies.
Tommy Bowe, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris will make the plane once they avoid injuries and will be vying for a jersey in the starting XV. Ferris and Best will be competing against Welsh pair Matthew Rees and Dan Lydiate in their respective positions so will both need a consistent season, with Ferris eager to make up for the last Lion's tour that was cut short due to injury.
Andrew Trimble could be in contention by the end of the season, though his versatility for Ulster and Ireland will most likely harm his chances of final selection.
Prediction – 4th
Since winning the league in 2006, Ulster have only reached the play-offs once, and this is arguably the strongest squad assembled at Ravenhill since the European victory in 1999. If Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy get enough quality ball they will cause every defence trouble. Doubts remain at out-half and full-back, but if Anscombe gets things right they should force themselves into a semi-final.
If Ulster were a biscuit they would be a ………Jaffa Cake
A formidable biscuit with a pedigree, but not to everyone’s liking. Moving with the times to maintain the product's high standard but packaged slightly different.
Most likely headline
Zebre Bowe-d Over from Tommy’s Hat-trick
Least likely headline
Ulster's Springbok’s Tame Leinster Lions