The Emergence of Ulster Rugby
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Ulster have very much been the force to be reckoned with this season, racking up 16 wins, 1 draw and 4 loses. A lot of you will remember the impressive 13 match unbeaten record, ended by Northampton in the Heineken Cup. They won the first 10 games in the Pro12 launching them into a very favourable first position. After being blown away in last seasons Heineken Cup final by Leinster many may not have predicted for them to have such a strong domestic season.
In recent seasons, I won’t say Ulster have been ‘disappointing’ but in my opinion they have not performed to the standards in the league compared to what they have shown this year. They have on average finished 4th and below in recent seasons, the lowest being 9th in 2007/08 and 6th last season (2011/12). So how have Ulster improved drastically to be in first position of the Pro12 going into the final game of the season?
Ulster have had a strong defence this season, conceding the 3rd least amount of points and scoring the 2nd most. Showing strengths in both defence and attack. This has amounted in the greatest point difference in the league being in favour of Ulster.
One of the many strengths of Ulster this year has been the emergence of their young talent. The likes of Paddy Jackson (21), Craig Gilroy (22), Iain Henderson (21), and Luke Marshall (22). have shown for Ulster this year. Earning them both call-ups to the Ireland squad for the 6 Nations (despite disappointments by many in the Ireland squad this year). The vision of Jackson and his ability to attack going forward have made him hot on the lips this year, he has forced his way to make the Number 10 top his and rightfully deserves after big performances throughout the year. Ready for Ireland yet? Maybe. Craig Gilroy is a very good prospect for the future, winning Ulster Young Player of the Year in 2011/12 and he dominated the Ireland fixtures in the Autumn. Scoring a hat-trick against Fiji and the opening try against Argentina in his full test derby for Ireland. Iain Henderson is a superb talent, personally caught my eye throughout the season for consistently strong performances. Deservedly got his chance for Ireland in the 6 Nations and played well despite the results. Finally, the last of the youth that Ulster have utilised is Luke Marshall. The centre has shone for both Ulster and Ireland recently. His strength shown in the 6 Nations made him a perfect partner for Brian O’Driscoll, who’s creativity allowed for Marshall to show his strength, unfortunately the injury which he picked up against Italy cut short his 6 Nations campaign.
Then you look at the experienced players they have amongst the ranks. Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry, and Andrew Trimble. All 5 very experienced and have showed their experience in guiding Ulster to success this season. Trimble has shone for Ulster, being one of the most consistent finishers. His pace alone lets him beat defenders, giving Ulster an edge every time he plays. All of the experience in the Ulster pack is very good for the development of the youth coming through the ranks. Mark Anscombe has been crafted the ability to mix youth with experience throughout the season and this has gave them the advantage over the other 11 teams in the Pro12.
With all of the factors considered and concluding to the emergence of Ulster as a strength within Irish rugby can be contributed down to the mix of youth and experience throughout the ranks? My personal opinion says yes. However, has Anscombe just got lucky this year and will Ulster fall back down the league table next year, or will they build on the successes of this year to go forward in the future. Only time will tell.