Tuesday 14 August 2018

Tony Ward: Connacht and Ulster will rise again with the right approach

Ulster's John Cooney. Photo: Sportsfile
Ulster's John Cooney. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack Carty is not always reliable off the tee but his play-making ability makes him a valuable asset for Connacht Photo: Johan Pretorius/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In a sense, it's now a fortnight of relative calm before the storm. The penultimate round of games in the PRO14 play-off race will be followed by the Champions Cup semi-finals and then the final PRO14 derby day to define who plays who, where and when in the knockout phase of that competition, leading to the 2018 final in the Aviva on May 26.

At this distance it looks like Glasgow, Munster and the Cheetahs will finish in the top three places, and in that order, in Conference A.

However, with the South African side at home to Munster in Bloemfontein on Saturday, a win for the hosts could put the squeeze on Johann van Graan's side going into what will likely be a must-win game for Ulster in Limerick in the final qualifying round of the PRO14.

In Conference B, the smart money suggests Leinster, Scarlets and Edinburgh will finish one, two and three, although a win for Edinburgh at home to the Scarlets this weekend would put the cat amongst the pigeons for second place.

Ulster still have three games to go and last weekend's unexpected bonus-point victory in Murrayfield will have given the run-in to this disappointing season a timely injection.

Finish

With Glasgow, Ospreys and Munster still to play, a third-place Conference finish - thereby qualifying for the PRO14 play-offs - for Ulster looks a mighty ask.

However, with Benetton, who play Leinster at the RDS next, the main opposition for the seventh and final Champions Cup place for 2018/19, you would think Europe is the priority for everyone at the Kingspan.

A lot can happen over the final two rounds but it looks like the Warriors and Leinster will claim the home semi-finals with Munster poised to entertain Edinburgh and the Scarlets set to host the Cheetahs in the domestic play-offs.

I would expect Ulster and Cardiff to pip Benetton for the final two PRO14 places in the Champions Cup, given that the South African teams can't qualify until 2020/2021 at least.

Were Benetton to cause an upset against Leinster and then with Zebre to play on 'derby day' the Italian franchise could beat Ulster and/or Cardiff to that final European slot.

Like most, I am mystified by Ulster's poor return on an ongoing basis.

However, I do not share the doom and gloom. I firmly believe the underage structures - while nowhere near the strength in quality and quantity as Leinster - continue to supply the best fit-for-purpose stadium in the country with the ammunition to ensure the passionate supporters continue to stand up for the Ulster men.

We need four proud and strong provinces if we are to compete consistently on the world stage, specifically at the World Cup.

There are many reasons why Ulster are struggling - on and off the field - but the permanent loss of Ruan Pienaar, and the absence of Paddy Jackson, two world-class players, would knock any team off track.

John Cooney has done a great job in filling that scrum-half void and here's hoping Johnny McPhillips will do the same one position out.

Ulster will rise again but there are some big decisions to be made concerning management structure once Jono Gibbes has departed.

I embrace the movement of players from the overstocked east to pastures new whether north, south or west and Jordi Murphy and Marty Moore will add significantly to what Cooney, Nick Timoney, Alan O'Connor and Greg Jones have already brought up the M1.

As of now there is a divide between Munster and Leinster, and Ulster and Connacht.

Having said that, Connacht and Ulster still have a chance of beating Leinster and Munster in the Sportsground and Thomond Park on Saturday week respectively, such is the nature of inter-provincial rivalry.

But for Connacht, like Ulster, this has been a horror season. Whoever followed Pat Lam (much like whoever succeeds Joe Schmidt when that time comes) was always set to inherit a poisoned chalice.

Kieran Keane has a wise head on very mature shoulders. Given a full pre-season plus some useful new signings the western province, even in the absence of their greatest ever servant John Muldoon, have the capacity to rise again.

The one area in which I would urge restraint is at out-half.

Jack Carty has had an ongoing issue with his percentage return in goal-kicking.

Despite that, there is no denying his ability as a playmaker.

He needs to rebuild confidence and if that means someone else assuming the goal-kicking responsibility then so be it. The goal kicker does not have to wear 10 by law.

Surely in a professional game, where hookers practice lineout throwing every day and kickers likewise at the posts, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility for a regular in another position to assume that role.

Give Carty time and space and he will come good in that specialist kicking role too.

For Connacht, clear and rational thinking, plus the very relevant input of David Nucifora, will ensure the only was is up.

Irish Independent

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