Sunday 22 April 2018

New Zealand women's coach on three-man shortlist for Ulster job - with no Irishmen in the mix

Iain Henderson’s leadership shone through. Photo: Alan Harvey/Sportsfile
Iain Henderson’s leadership shone through. Photo: Alan Harvey/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The preamble to Ulster's spin over to Edinburgh on Friday night was dominated by the appalling vista that would be their fourth defeat on the trot. The cost of this one would be to open the door wider to Treviso's chase for a Champions Cup slot - at Ulster's expense.

In an horrendous season, on and off the field, the prospect of missing out on the premier European competition, which Ulster have been a part of from the start and every year since, would have topped things off. The gap between beating La Rochelle in a brave and utterly committed performance in the pool phase, to not qualifying for the competition, never mind its knockout phase, would have felt like a sudden and painful impact .

And then they go and snaffle a bonus-point win away from home, their first since beating the Kings in Port Elizabeth in November. Coincidentally, that win in South Africa caused more unrest than cheer, given that it came with 36 points conceded and would subsequently be viewed as part of a sequence - with Treviso and then the Dragons - where Ulster were leaking points at a frightening rate. The rest, you know.

So here we are, with welcome and unlikely breathing space between Ulster and Treviso. The danger hasn't gone away, and with Ospreys (at home) for whom Allen Clarke is likely to become their head coach on more than a stand-in basis, Glasgow (at home) and Munster (away) on the run-in, lots of bad stuff can happen.

In "the cathedral that is Murrayfield," as a man on BBC NI put it with some hilarity - a lot of empty pews there - we had plenty of good stuff against a quality Edinburgh side who had five wins in succession before losing narrowly to Cardiff in the Challenge Cup last weekend. Most of it came from Iain Henderson.

He is a horse of a man, and his leadership shone through in this game. Towards the end of the third quarter they looked in real trouble when conceding a penalty try after a series of retreating scrums in front of their own posts. It closed Ulster's lead to four points. With Henderson and Jean Deysel leading the charge, they battled back.

The South African carried a remarkable 20 times on top of terrific defensive work, but it was Henderson's sheer impact, with or without the ball, that was so impressive. You can see why Joe Schmidt is so keen to pair him with James Ryan for Ireland, for the work rate they provide is industrial. That it was Henderson who should seal the deal with two minutes left was fitting.

"It was a team effort and there were some good plays that managed to get us over the line," Dwayne Peel said. The good plays he was referring to were three tries launched from set-piece plays that worked beautifully. That kind of thing does wonders for the confidence.

"The platform we had was excellent and the defensive effort was good too. If we prepare as well as we did this week and perform as we did on the pitch then we'll give ourselves a chance (against Ospreys).

"It's been well documented that our away form hasn't been good this year, and that's why this win was really important. We showed a good steely edge, and apart from the intercept I thought we were quite dominant in the first half. Edinburgh came back into things in the second half, so it was lovely to get the bonus point at the end with Hendy."

So the next few weeks will reveal if Ulster, with a game in hand, can overhaul Edinburgh who have Scarlets and Glasgow in their last two rounds, or hang on to fourth for a play-off place, or collapse and miss out altogether.

All of this is being closely monitored by the shortlist of three men now being considered for the Ulster job. New Zealand women's coach Glenn Moore is understood to be on that list and all of them are from overseas.

Whether the new coach is picking up the pieces from scratch next season, or with Champions Cup rugby as part of the package, remains to be seen. It will be interesting, one way or another.

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