Egg Chaser is one half of the Whiff of Cordite Rugby Blog – they’ve been on the go since May 2011. He is the Ulster half of the site, but doesn’t make it to Ravenhill nearly enough, being based behind enemy lines i.e. Dublin.
Last season was disappointing for Ulster – they started well, with three wins, but then went into tailspin, losing four in a row with a sequence of desperate showings – the low point being the home loss to Treviso. It was always going to be a big ask to turn around from 1 point in 4 games to make the Play-Offs, and so it proved – their trademark spring surge petering out in April/May, following their European victory in Thomond, with three interprovincial defeats in succession.
The bit in between the losses was the most encouraging – Ulster had a defined gameplan which was expansive and exciting, and they were the top try scorers in the competition. Unfortunately, the catalyst for a lot of the more daring moves, the mercurial Ian Humphreys, has departed – getting back the creativity he brought to the table will be important.
Ulster have an advantage over Leinster and Munster in that many of their key players won’t be involved internationally – the props, Johann Muller, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson, Ruan Pienaar, the centres, Craig Gilroy and Jared Payne are all likely to be available to Mark Anscombe for most of the season – this is a key advantage when large chunks of their rivals starting XVs are going to be hors de combat for weeks at a time.
Worth watching this year will be the performances of Ulster’s young guns – Paddy McAlister at loosehead prop will expect to step into the starting line-up for important games; Iain Henderson is a future international second row, but expect to see him playing blindside; and young centres Nevin Spence and Luke Marshall should be pushing for gametime following an injury-interrupted 2011/12.
It’s a key test of Ulster’s depth chart – their late season collapse last year showed they couldn’t compete on 2 fronts, and that is something that can be improved upon. The backups in the front and back 5 are largely young and hungry, and of good quality (and largely Irish) – it is in between they may have issues, particularly in the halves.
Unless they can persuade Ruan Pienaar to shift out one, their depth chart at 10 is Paddy Jackson then Niall O’Connor – not exactly chock-full of the kind of experience Ulster might need on a dirty Friday night in Rodney Parade. For all Humphreys’ infuriating inconsistencies, he had been there and done that. Equally, in the back-row, behind the starters of Ferris-Henry-Wilson, there isn’t a huge degree of quality, and given the need to keep Ferris wrapped in cotton wool where possible, it’s a potential weakness.
In short, if Ulster manage to replicate their November-March form when they were models of consistency, winning 75% of their games, they should be good for the Play-Offs – a target of 15 wins and 10 bonus points should guarantee it. I think it will come down to how well Paddy Jackson adopts to having his bright future fast-tracked.
Best addition to your side? I’d be tempted to say Tommy Bowe, but I’m going for Jared Payne, who missed virtually all of last years’ campaign through injury. Ulster were rather bosh-tastic in the back 3 last year, and his invention will be very important if they are to step on.
Opening day prediction? Glasgow at home is something of an early must-win for Ulster, and I expect them to make a statement and do it in style.
Overall season prediction for your side? A Play-Off spot is certainly within Ulster’s reach, but I don’t see them winning it – third place and a semi-final defeat to Leinster (déjà vu)
Other predictions? Glasgow will struggle to get back to the Play-Offs, as will Munster. Connacht might do better than people think, especially with Dan Parks in situ.
Who's going to win the RaboDirect PRO12? Leinster have the deepest squad, and want it badly after 3 successive Final defeats – they won’t be stopped this time.
Egg Chaser is one half of the Whiff of Cordite Rugby Blog