Pro 12 Season Preview – Ulster
The league became the second focus for Ulster last season as they managed to reach the giddy heights of the Heineken Final. It will be interesting to see whether this will be their same focus this year, or whether their squad has now developed to allow them to battle on two fronts.
The first part of the season will be crucial for Ulster as they may well be without some of their star players in the likes of the outstanding Ruan Pienaar who could be facing international call ups for the Four Nations tournament. Added to that Ulster now only have the inexperienced Jackson as their starting out half after the move of Humphries, then they could be left seriously short on experience in their half back parings.
And what has been proven over the years in this league, getting a good start is vital to any play off prospects and I fear for this Ulster side being so short on experience in such key positions, that they won’t get the start that’s needed.
The loss of Wannenburg may come back to hurt them also, as he’s been one of their standout performers in the past couple of seasons. The fact that Ulster will have to face chunks of this season without their South African contingent I think might actually become a good thing for this side. They need to start cultivating more of their own home grown leaders other than Ferris and Best who are often missing with Ireland. The fact that they’ve seemingly relied on their Non Irish Qualified players I feel has had a negative effect on their squad depth of influential home grown players. Ulster fans will hope that this is not the case this season.
They do have many young, up and coming players such as Jackson, Gilroy and Fitzpatrick to look to, but it’s whether or not they have depth across the whole squad to compete, and I for one don’t think they do.
I think the return of players such as Bowe will make them more potent in attack, and players such as Henry and Tuohy will give them grunt up front, but that the disruption and inexperience of their halfbacks will ultimately lead to Ulster falling just short of being competitive enough to make the playoffs.
I think the obstacles they may face at the start of the season will put them on the back foot in the league and while I expect them to finish in the Pro 12 strongly, they will just have too much ground to make up on other sides. Although as last season, I feel they will be caught up in the playoff race until the last handful of matches.
My players to watch: Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy, Tommy Bowe and Declan Fitzpatrick