Rugby Union

Ulster Rugby aiming to get much higher with home-grown crop

James Hume (centre), seen celebrating a try against Leinster, is one of the homegrown talents raising Ulster's hopes. ©INPHO/Bryan Keane
Paul McIntyre

"There are a lot of clubs out there with the uncertainty of not playing and the anguish of having either games postponed or awarded to the opposition.

"That's really unfortunate but that's the way it is and it could slap us in the face at any point," said Ulster Head Coach Dan McFarland.

McFarland was speaking after his side's recent 27-22 win over Northampton in the Champions Cup.

Little did he know that it would only be a week before that 'slap in the face' would strike the Ulster camp and force the postponement of his side's St Stephen's Day clash with Connacht.

It brought the curtain down on a year that started with a rejigging of both the domestic and European competitions but ended with hope that success for a largely homegrown based squad isn't as far away as we think.

While the wait for silverware continues, the emergence of local talent of the likes of Marcus Rea, Cormac Izuchukwu, David McCann, James Hume, Robert Baloucoune and more recently, Nathan Doak suggests that Ulster are at long last, on the road to on field success.

With continued disruption to both the URC and European competitions due to Covid, this season could take on a similar course to last season with both competitions being altered half way through.

In the final Pro 14 season the rejig went against Ulster, but with the European competition going under much more surgery, Ulster saw themselves in a different competition for the first time in their history.

After losing their opening two pool games it looked like Ulster's European adventure was over. But with tournament organisers having a re-think, Ulster found themselves in a Challenge Cup where they were one of the favourites.

After wins over a Harlequins second string team in London, 57-21, they then accounted for Northampton in a thrilling contest 35-27 to qualify for a first European semi-final since 2012.

Ulster travelled to familiar foes Leicester in confident mood. After all, Ulster had only won at Welford Road as recently as January 2019 in the Champions Cup.

And at half time it was all going to plan.

Ulster had stormed into a 17-6 half time lead thanks to tries from Ian Henderson and Billy Burns.

But in the second half Leicester came roaring back andpowered their way to a 33-24 scoreline.

It was a hard defeat to take. From being within touching distance of a major final Ulster were left shellshocked and returned to Belfast with the trophy famine showing no signs of ending.

There was to be no joy either in the final Pro 14 league.

Going into the new year Ulster were sitting pretty on the coattails of Leinster in their conference.

A semi-final was all but done and dusted until Covid raised its ugly head and forced tournament organisers into a structural re-think.

No semi-finals they said!

And with Leinster beating all before them, they went on to wrap up another league title after seeing off Munster in a largely forgettable final.

It was a major disappointment for Dan McFarland and his team.

Losing only two matches in the league season, both to Leinster, made the decision even harder to take. The home defeat to Leinster in particular was a bitter pill to swallow.

With the game in the balance prop Andrew Warwick picked up a red card for a high tackle while Leinster's Jimmy O'Brien only saw yellow for a similar indiscretion.

With Covid delaying the planned introduction of the South African Super Rugby franchises, the league organisers introduce the Rainbow Cup to see out the final weeks of the season.

The Pro 14 was divided into two sections with the overall winners to take on the South African Pool winners.

It was safe to say that this was one rainbow that no one was interested to see if there was a pot of gold at the end of.

The competition also brought trials for prospectivenew laws.

While the 50:22 kick to touch law rewarded attacking play, defences were rewarded for holding up attacks on their goal line with a goal line drop out which both made the cut into the law book. But the captain's challenge was soon binned after it created more chaos for officials and captains alike.

During the summer Ian Henderson was again involved in a Lions tour. This time to South Africa where he mysteriously never received a test call up.

But there was better news for some of his teammates back home.

Tom O'Toole, Nick Timoney, James Hume and Robert Baloucoune were all rewarded for their excellent club form by winning their Ireland caps in the Summer Series against Japan and the USA respectively.

Indeed, Baloucoune capped his debut off in style with a try against the USA in the 71-10 rout.

In September the new United Rugby Championship (URC) kicked off bringing together the 12 teams of the former Pro 12 league together with the four South African teams in the Super Rugby franchise.

But with the South African sides missing their internationals for the beginning of the league, fireworks have been few and far between as yet again, it's Leinster who lead the way as we approach the turn of the year.

In September Ulster's chances received an unexpected boost in the form of South African Duane Vermeulen.

The 2019 World Cup winner turned down offers from Japan and across Europe to sign a two-year deal with Ulster.

Fans and players alike thought Christmas had arrived early, but had to wait until December for his debut as international commitments and then Covid delayed his first outing.

The form of Timoney and Hume was particularly eye catching as Ulster started the new season in a winning manner. But defeats away to Connacht and the Ospreys took the shine off a first win at the RDS over Leinster since 2013.

An historic 29-23 win over Clermont at the Stade Marcel-Michelinwas followed up by a home win over Northampton to get this season's Champions Cup campaign off to the best possible start, but how the future of this competition will pan out is anybody's guess.

Ulster may not be among the favourites to lift the trophy come May, but with a new breed of local talent now starting to dominate team selection, perhaps a repeat of 1999 may not be that far away.

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