It’s one month into the Pro12 season, and with the first interpros and European action kicking the season up a notch it’s worth taking a look to see how Ulster are getting on five games in.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way, and bask in the glory of being top of the table after five rounds. While it’s not exactly dominant in the way Ulster swept all before them for thirteen weeks in 2012/13, it’s always a good start.
Add to that the (whisper it) good depth that’s been shown over the five games. Impressive performances from wider squad members like Alan O’Connor, Clive Ross and Louis Ludik combined with academy cameos by Rob Lyttle and Ross Kane have meant that while Ulster may not have been playing with a full deck with their internationals being fed back into action bit by bit, they’re certainly making the best of what they have. Think about it: Ulster have lost three international centres to injury – Stuarts McCloskey and Olding plus Luke Marshall – and they’ve just slotted two members of Ireland’s world cup squad in to replace them. Consider that Ulster are yet to welcome back Peter Nelson, Andrew Trimble, Dan Tuohy and Chris Henry, not to mention new signing Marcel Coetzee.
Speaking of Ulster’s new signings, there’s definitely some impact being made. Ravenhill literally jumps for joy every time Charles Piutau gets the ball. Rodney Ah You has been throwing himself around impressively, adding a ball-carrying option with good hands to the team has been lacking since John Afoa moved to Gloucester. Kieran Treadwell and Angus Lloyd haven’t had too many chances to impress yet but they’ve made cameos here and there so it’ll be interesting to see how things go.
One final thing to mention is the quality of rugby that’s been played on the front foot. When Ulster have had quick ball and managed to break down a defense they’ve played some sumptuous stuff. Paddy Jackson’s try against Glasgow or Rob Lyttle’s second try against the Dragons are perfect examples or taking the right option and carving up a defence like a Christmas dinner. However…
And the not so good…
Ok so some of the rugby that Ulster have been playing has been diabolical. While obviously “winning ugly” is better than losing prettily, that only lasts for a game or two and definitely doesn’t apply to teams that are scraping the bottom of the table. Whenever they’re bogged down, Ulster’s good work seems to become undone and they revert to lazy, static runners and overcomplicated moves under pressure. Instead of coasting out of Italy with a bonus point in hand, they needed Treviso to eat a yellow card before they could get the scoring going again.
Against Scarlets they missed a few gilt-edge chances and served up some absolute dross against the Ospreys – who were admittedly much more fired up after being humbled by Leinster a week prior – last weekend, only getting out of dodge thanks to Jared Payne’s try-saving tackle.
It’s hard to pin this onto one particular thing, but the chopping and changing of personnel may be a factor. While it’s great that Ulster are showing some depth, there are obviously going to be teething problems with so many players coming back in at the start of the season (just look at Connacht, who only had one proper pre-season game)
MVP: King Louis
Who’d have thought that aul Louis Ludik, arguably Journeyman of the Year in the last two seasons would have been probably Ulster’s best player in the first month? Now stop clutching your pearls, I know you could argue Ruan Pienaar has been imperious and that Charles Piutau is a human highlight reel, but neither has started every game and I’d argue that he hasn’t had the impact that Ludik has had, whether it’s making hard yards, setting up tries or getting over the whitewash himself – he’s pretty much doing his best Andrew Trimble impersonation. He cops a lot of flak generally for being Ulster’s latest project player, but I feel that’s a decision made more out of ensuring that they can keep him in the squad rather than realistically capping him for Ireland.
Rating for September: B-
As I said at the top, it’s hard to argue with being top of the league, but with a somewhat desperate Connacht and Europe coming up (a trip to Bordeaux won’t exactly be a walk in the park), things could definitely be better. There’s nothing terminal about their shortcomings, but they hardly look like world beaters.
But sure what do I know, I’ll probably rock up to the Sportsground tomorrow and be blown away at how well we do against Connacht!