Monday 27 March 2017

Making all the right noises

Paddy Jackson: steeped in rugby
Paddy Jackson: steeped in rugby
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It feels a lot longer than last summer since Mark Anscombe arrived in Ravenhill. Success can do that. Pretty quickly it's like the man out front has been a permanent fixture, largely because he is saying the same thing all the time: yes, it's good to be winning; no, it won't go on for ever.



You will remember that the Kiwi arrived in uncommonly difficult circumstances. Ulster had cocked up the move sideways of the popular home boy Brian McLaughlin, who the previous season had taken them to their first shot at the European knockout stages since 1998/99, and then bettered it by getting to last May's final in Twickenham.

Then along came Anscombe, with an average coaching record in New Zealand, and an awkward episode trailing close behind him after his mobile phone had been used to send a racist message to Auckland Blues coach Pat Lam.

You would have needed an industrial-sized tarpaulin to cover the number of people waiting for Anscombe to fail. A blanket would do the job now. From their early-season spin to France, to this afternoon's trip to Llanelli, Ulster have played 14 times and not lost. Leinster's 20 games unbeaten last season may be the high watermark but nobody expected Ulster's tide to be so full so soon.

Today marks the start of their road to discovery. First up are Scarlets, leading the Welsh charge for the Pro12, followed by away and home Heineken Cup ties with Northampton Saints, and then back to domestic duty for the games with Leinster and Munster. Using 37 players to get to this point is probably not unique, but calling on so many bodies without falling off the pace is certainly special.

The recurring theme of Ulster's rebuild has been to create depth in their squad, enough to avoid the troughs that have followed in recent seasons when either Ireland calls or injury robbed them of key players. We're now seeing how deep it goes, for with an unsettling five-day turnaround between this afternoon's league game with Scarlets, to Friday night's cup tie in Northampton, Anscombe (inset) has been forced to cancel all leave and put the troops on standby.

Nine changes to today's line-up, from the side that got out of Treviso last weekend with a one-point win, sounds dodgy, but when you see who's starting – plus the quality of their bench – you appreciate how well the squad-building process is coming along.

And right on cue, both Johann Muller and Rory Best, their two most influential forwards, are ready and willing. If all goes according to plan in Wales then Stephen Ferris and Lewis Stevenson will be the only pair unavailable to the coach when he sits down to pick the team for Europe.

That's where Paddy Jackson comes in. There are a few intriguing aspects to Ulster's stress test over the next five games: have they moved on far enough from the drilling they got from Saints in the quarter-final two seasons ago? Will they get to the new year as the top team in Ireland? And will Jackson, who celebrates his 21st in six weeks, put enough bullets in the gun for Declan Kidney to point it at the 35-year-old Ronan O'Gara and usher him off the premises?

Jackson looks like he is 15 years old, which incidentally was his age when he played in an Ulster schools cup final. He is steeped in rugby, on both sides of his family, and there is a queue of people north of the border who will tell you that it's a question of when, rather than if, he makes it. By the time he lights the candles on his birthday cake we'll all be much wiser.

So far he has looked busy and competent, and his recovery from the meltdown in the Heineken Cup final last season seems on track. It was a big play by McLaughlin to start him in that game ahead of Ian Humphreys, a decision made more on Jackson's willingness to defend than his capacity to direct the traffic.

Around the Ireland camp he impressed his elders with his attitude. They liked having him about the place. Going from popular kid to threatening presence is the transition Jackson needs to complete, and you suspect Kidney is willing it to happen.

It's awkward for the national coach having O'Gara around. They don't get on too well, and O'Gara knows that he is there only as a 999 call, but Kidney is afraid to let him go without having someone who can do a passable impression of what the outhalf does best: rescue operations.

Much has been made of O'Gara's last act against the Springboks when he put the ball out of play with Ireland chasing the game. His detractors presented that as evidence that he has lost it. It's a bit of a jump to infer so much from one mistake, but for sure he doesn't have the presence he did at his peak. It's still up to Jackson, however, to prove that he has some presence of his own.

Neither would you say that Saints are the force they were two seasons ago, but still they are comfortably within the top four in the Premiership, and it would be a serious upset if they had slipped out of that bracket by the time the play-offs come around. By then you'd expect their coach Jim Mallinder to have been approached by the Scots to move his kit to Murrayfield. He fits perfectly the prototype of what they are after, so if, as expected, the SRU run with an interim coach for the Six Nations, then Mallinder would be a perfect fit for the longer haul.

This is his sixth season at Franklin's Gardens, and you'd doubt if the European Challenge Cup win in 2009, and Heineken Cup runners-up spot in 2011 – when overhauled by Leinster – are about to be bettered.

They are still good enough to do Ulster damage, though. And you can take it that they'll have figured out how. It was noticeable in their handy win in the fog at Salford City Stadium on Friday night how they had picked out the weakest points in the Sale side.

True, there is a bit to choose from here, but the first-half tries for Jamie Elliott and Soane Tonga'uiha were the product of planning and accurate execution, using their powerful maul to open a blindside big enough to attack a poorly defended flank. It wasn't a lucky burglary: they knew there would be nobody home there when they called.

"It was something we spotted during the week," says Paul Shields, their manager and former Ulster hooker. "Leicester had done it to them and we felt it might open up again. Our maul was going well too and we needed to be going forward on that – that was the most important thing."

Between that phase, and the power of their scrum, they were well ahead of Ulster when the teams met in the quarter-final in 2011. Ulster were so thin on the bench that day that when BJ Botha – returning from an injury lay-off – ran out of gas, McLaughlin had to call on Paddy McAllister, with Tom Court moving across to tighthead. It was as painful for Court then as it was in Twickenham last season. Clearly they are better resourced now. And what about Saints?

"We'd like to think so," Shields says. "You can see what Ulster have done – continuing the work started by Brian McLaughlin. As well as getting in big internationals to give spine to the team, he gave more and more exposure to young guys coming through. Guys like the late Nevin Spence, God rest him, and Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall and then to see Iain Henderson getting capped having only appeared at the back end of last season is incredible.

"But we've moved on too and developed. We were within 40 minutes of doing it in the final that season, and then Jonny Sexton and Leinster raised their game to another level. I think Ulster mirrored that last year, getting to the final but not quite having enough to match Leinster.

"We haven't quite had the results in Europe but we were very close to beating Munster last year – we all know about the 2,500 phases before Rog dropped the goal down there. After that we were emotionally knackered and got sucker-punched by Scarlets the next week. That was kind of it for us. We've recruited well and progressed since then. I think we're in a good place now."

On the plus side, the Pisi brothers have added a lot to their attack – on the negative, their scrum, which may well feature the same front five on Friday night as in the Walkers Stadium two years ago, is not the fearsome unit it was when there was clear daylight between these teams.

Ulster too will probably have four of their front five in action, the difference being John Afoa instead of Botha. That swap is illustrative of Ulster now and then – a better and more experienced pack of forwards, and heaps of threat out the back, with Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe and Gilroy, presuming Anscombe does the sensible thing and picks him ahead of Andrew Trimble, forming the most lethal back three in the competition. If they keep delivering on current form it will be a while yet before the coach has to change the tape.

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