Thursday 21 June 2018

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Clarke return adds spice to Ulster's Euro play-off

Allen Clarke. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Allen Clarke. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

As Allen Clarke was driving out the gate of Ravenhill last year - a casualty in the reshuffle that saw himself and Neil Doak replaced by Jono Gibbes and Dwayne Peel - the Future Fairy flagged him down with a message. "Never mind Clarkey, you'll be back here before you know it!"

And of course the fairy was spot on. Clarke had to wait until last month before his Ospreys gave him an excuse to visit the away dressing room in Kingspan. And now, like waiting an age for a bus, he's going back again this afternoon for the play-off to secure the last Pro14 spot in next season's Champions Cup. Ulster's season has been nothing if not interesting, so Clarke having an opportunity to put one over on the organisation that dumped him is very much in keeping with that theme.

He succeeded in hitching a ride with Ospreys before the new season kicked off, and by January he was being installed as interim head coach when Steve Tandy departed as head coach. Fast forward to last month and Ospreys' search for a "world-class" coach to replace Tandy, longer term, took them down the corridor to the door marked 'interim coach'. In the manual on survival there will be a chapter on Allen Clarke.

It is apposite in this Ulster story that the man who replaced him - Jono Gibbes - already has his bag packed. We don't know if there will be a taxi waiting at the Clock End this evening to take him straight to Belfast International, or if he'll hang around for a few days, but a year in Ulster will have been a sobering experience after nine stellar seasons between Leinster and Clermont. It's also up for discussion whether his next stop is back home and a new job with the Highlanders or back to France where he was having coffee with La Rochelle last week.

So who will turn up to see how today's shoot-out unfolds? Not too many we fear. Season tickets don't cover this gig, and with it being on a Sunday afternoon it's not the ideal combo for locals. Yet the stakes are pretty high: hit the target and Ulster go through the business class door marked European Champions Cup in November; miss and they turn right for economy and the Challenge Cup.

There is an argument to be made that the coach in waiting, Dan McFarland - he's waiting for Ulster/IRFU to weigh in with a fat wedge to free him for pre-season - would be better off starting from scratch. In which case the Challenge Cup might be more appropriate. Anything in Ulster will be a hard sell next season. Flogging tickets to the second tier would be thankless.

So McFarland will be tuned in closely to what happens this afternoon. Interestingly, the SRU stated that they would have two forwards coaches on their summer tour: McFarland and Carl Hogg, with separate duties. This looks like optics to suggest they see a future for both in the same set-up. The subtext of which is the Scots only have interest in a top-dollar separation. Given relations between the IRFU and SRU after the vote for RWC 2023, can you imagine the pain in Lansdowne Road - and by extension the anger with Ulster operations director Bryn Cunningham - for the cock-up that was the handling of the recruitment process?

The Scots understand the dynamics here. When they jumped the gun with the announcement of Vern Cotter's appointment in 2013, it left them waiting the guts of a year as Clermont made sure he worked out his contract to the finish line. Now the SRU are in the driving seat with Ulster.

The optimum for Ulster clearly would be Champions Cup rugby with McFarland in the seat from mid-summer, but the absence of Rory Best and Iain Henderson makes that harder to deliver. For Ospreys to succeed, it will mean a parting gift from a handful of top-quality players for whom today is their last run in black: Dan Biggar, Ashley Beck, Jeff Hassler and Dimitri Arhip are all on their way, as is the injured Rhys Webb.

Deprived of the ball for big chunks of the game between this pair in Kingspan last month, the Ospreys forwards - who have responded well to Clarke - will be hopeful of dominating a home pack minus Iain Henderson and captain Rory Best. Their attack has been dismal all season but then Ulster have struggled to launch theirs off a decent platform. This doesn't bode well.

Ulster: C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, J Cooney; C Black, R Herring (capt), R Kane, A O'Connor, K Treadwell, R Diack, N Timoney, S Reidy. Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, T O'Toole, J Regan, C Henry; D Shanahan, D Cave, C Gilroy

Ospreys: S Davies; J Hassler, A Beck, O Watkin, H Dirksen; D Biggar, T Haberfield; N Smith, S Otten, D Arhip, B Davies, AW Jones (capt), J King, D Lydiate. Replacements: I Philips, R Jones, M Fla, A Beard, S Cross, M Aubrey, C Allen, J Hook

Referee: M Mitrea (Italy)

Ulster v Ospreys,

BBC 2, 3.05

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