Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The November Ulstermen

How many Ulstermen will make it into Joe Schmidt’s Autumn 23? asks Ryan Cullen…

Ryan Cullen logo

After a shaky start which saw them lose both of their first two fixtures, Ulster has bounced back strongly, stringing together six straight wins ahead of this weekend’s difficult trip to Parc Y Scarlets.

Whilst the remaining squad will undoubtedly be focussing on the Scarlets, the rest of us are now starting to look forward to the several weeks that follow when we will see the first international action of the European season.

With the new Irish coaching team now firmly ensconced, the question on the lips of many Ulster fans is how many Ulstermen will make it into Joe Schmidt’s Autumn 23?

In the eyes of many Ulster fans Declan Kidney was a harsher judge of Ulster players than their Leinster and Munster counterparts throughout his reign. Whilst I believe this it was more his nature to resort to the tried and tested when times got tough rather than anything else, the belief that being an Ulster player was a disadvantage when it came to Irish selection was certainly a widely held one.

So ahead of this November’s Guinness Series I am going to take this opportunity to examine exactly what claims Ulster players have to make that matchday squad.

Front Row

Players selected: Rory Best, Tom Court, Declan Fitzpatrick

Starting with Best, injury aside he will be the starting hooker come the Australia & New Zealand games. Sean Cronin’s ability round the park has impressed so far this season but his basics are still not of the standard needed to be a first choice international. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cronin start against Samoa, but would expect the Ulsterman to return for the major challenges towards the end of the series.

Mike Ross appears to have now regained full fitness and thus it would be a major shock to see anybody other than the Leinsterman starting against the Wallabies and ABs. Declan Fitzpatrick has played well so far this season, anchoring Ulster’s scrum in both their major victories against Leicester and Montpellier. Whilst it certainly wasn’t plain sailing in either of those games, Fitzpatrick showed an ability to adapt and overcome early issues and looks fitter than at any previous stage. He should fill a place on the bench this autumn with perhaps even a start against Samoa a reward for his early season form.

It’s rare I feel sorry for sportsmen but Tom Court is undoubtedly one who deserves a bit of sympathy. Since he was thrown to the wolves at tighthead against England a few years back, he has been typecast as just another powderpuff Irish prop. This combined with the fact he doesn’t possess the, exceptionally rare, open field prowess of Cian Healy has meant he is often overlooked.

Yet Court has been one of the lynchpin’s of Ulster’s rise to prominence over the past few years and certainly (to these eyes) is the standout replacement for Healy. When deployed as a loosehead he is the equal of any scrummager in the country. He carries well enough, defends well for a prop and is an excellent lineout lifter.

In short he is a very able deputy. We will have to wait and see if his excellent H Cup performances have been enough to force his way back into Schmidt’s thinking after he was left out of the first training squad of the Kiwi’s reign.

Second row:

Players Selected: Dan Tuohy

Ulster’s representation in this area has undoubtedly been reduced by the withdrawal of Iain Henderson. Henderson has been one of the standout performers for Ulster this season and would have been likely to have at least made the bench come test time given his versatility.

That leaves Dan Tuohy as the sole Ulster representative at lock. Tuohy is amongst those who have benefitted most from working with Mark Anscombe. Whilst always capable of carrying well and getting stuck in, under the Kiwi’s leadership Tuohy has developed a good offloading game and is much more reliable come scrum and lineout time.

With Donnacha Ryan out injured, I believe now is the time to give Tuohy a crack of the international whip. Whilst Mike McCarthy undoubtedly gave heart and soul for the cause last year I don’t believe he offers anything over and above Tuohy at this stage. Devin Toner obviously provides a terrific lineout option but must be more of a replacement for O’Connell rather than starting alongside. Again we wait to see how Schmidt sees the makeup of his new squad but Tuohy deserves a chance given his form of the past 15 months.

Back row

Players selected: Chris Henry, Roger Wilson

The back row is quite a straightforward selection for Joe Schmidt I would imagine. O’Mahony, O’Brien & Heaslip will start if fit. The only other questions are who might be blooded against Samoa and who will fill the bench?

The latter should be answered with the name Chris Henry. An all-rounder who can cover all backrow positions, Henry is the perfect bench replacement. His outstanding form over the past few weeks also strengthens his claims and Schmidt will know that he is an able replacement should any of his frontliners injure themselves.

Wilson’s chances must surely be slimmer. Only called up as cover due to injuries to others, Wilson may get some game time against Samoa but will carry the drinks otherwise. Harsh on a man who forced his way into the Ulster first team ahead of potential superstar Iain Henderson, but sadly I think the dye has already been cast on Wilson’s international career.

Half back

Players selected: Paddy Jackson

The omission of Paul Marshall caused some consternation amongst Ulster fans but I’m not sure what else we could have expected. Marshall is not a regular starter for Ulster and the constant comparison with Ruan Pienaar shows him in a fairly negative light. There is no doubt Marshall possesses quality but the improvement in Ulster’s performance against Leicester brought about by the introduction of Ryan Pienaar was perhaps the death knell for Marshall’s current international ambitions.

That Kieran Marmion hasn’t made it into the squad either is arguably a much greater surprise than Marshall’s omission. Marmion has been excellent for Connacht so far this season and is sure to be an international in the near future. Given the disciplinary proceedings hanging over the head of Connor Murray (at time of writing) I would be disappointed if the young Connacht scrum half wasn’t added to the squad in the event Murray isn’t available.

For Paddy Jackson it has been a terrific start to the season. Improving week on week, Jackson has been central to Ulster’s early season successes. That the general trend of his place kicking is a positive one is also a reason for cheer. Yet it is still not of the level Ian Madigan has attained so far this season so there is still work to be done.

Surely though Schmidt must have other requirements of his outhalves than just the ability to kick goals. He must question if Madigan manages the game as well as Jackson currently? Jackson’s performance against Leicester was one of the most complete I have seen from him in an Ulster shirt and he backed that up the very next week in Montpellier. He is full of confidence and his passing game is in fine fettle. Madigan, on the other hand, has frequently started from the bench for Leinster and hasn’t shown last season’s form so far this season.

Whilst Madigan is undoubtedly talented, can a player not starting for his province be selected at in such a pivotal position? Time will tell but I think Jackson’s form should earn him a spot amongst the replacements.

Centre

Players selected: Luke Marshall

Still no Darren Cave I hear many Ulster fans shout. The versatility of other squad members (such as Earls and McFadden) is perhaps the reason for this but it does seem Cave must do something which Irish coaches plainly don’t like. It would be churlish to suggest that Cave should be starting for Ireland but I am surprised he hasn’t been given a bit more of a chance.

Luke Marshall should reasonably expect to start all of the tests this autumn. Gordon D’Arcy has been a terrific servant to Irish rugby but it is difficult to see how he will be the first choice 12 come the next world cup. Marshall has performed well so far this season and is the future. Defensively excellent and growing as an attacking threat, Marshall needs international exposure to ensure he is ready come 2015. Any minutes the young Ballymena man can spent alongside Brian O’Driscoll will also be of benefit.

Back three

Players selected: Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble

Trimble’s inclusion mirrors that of Roger Wilson so discussion is fairly pointless at this stage. Conjecture over Tommy Bowe is also a zero sum game given he is a certainty to start. A two time Lion and confirmed world class performer, Bowe will be one of the first names on the teamsheet.

Craig Gilroy will undoubtedly reflect that his current injury problems have arrived at an inopportune moment given the injury to Simon Zebo also. Gilroy would surely have been the next name on the list if he was fully fit.

To my mind then, Ulster should have four names on Joe Schmidt’s first XV teamsheet, but in reality I reckon it’s perhaps more likely to be three with four Ulstermen taking up a place amongst the replacements. Whilst this seems like very few starters for the best team on the island so far this season, it is hard to argue that there should be any others included currently, given fitness issues in particular.

Ulster fans also need to remember that three or four of Ulster’s five most influential players aren’t Irish qualified. Naturally this is going to mean fewer international representatives. The sooner Jared Payne’s naturalisation period ends the better for all concerned in that area.

So Ulster fans should be wary of getting on Joe Schmidt’s back too early. Whilst plenty of Ulster players have performed exceptionally well so far this season, so have many others. Schmidt has chosen the majority of Ulster’s form players. Now it’s up to them to ensure they can’t be left out.

My name is Ryan Cullen and I am a 25 year old Ulster season ticket holder. I was introduced to the game around 15 years ago and have loved it ever since. I have an interest in pretty much all sports though so don’t be surprised to see a few football (Liverpool), Golfing and Racing interests (to name but a few) thrown in from time to time.

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